Rare Drivers May Multitask Safely

Are you one of the rare ones? I’ll bet most people think they are “rare” since they also think they are excellent drivers.

The National Safety Council estimates that 28 percent of all highway accidents and deaths are caused by drivers paying poor attention to the road because they’re holding cell phones to their heads.

But a study of 200 volunteers finds that one out of every 40 people apparently can operate a vehicle just fine while chatting on a phone. In simulated driving tests, anyway. The research by University of Utah psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer will be published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

Why are there so few great multi-taskers? The researchers say there may be a hidden cost, and that someone might excel at multi-tasking at the expense of other information processing. Or the high-tech environment that rewards multi-tasking is too new for the ability to have widely propagated, if there’s a true evolutionary advantage to having it.

The researchers want to study so-called supertaskers to find out how their brains do it. Meanwhile, don’t assume you’re one of the very few who can apparently talk and drive safely. There’s a very high probability that you’re not.

—Steve Mirsky

6 replies
  1. Grayson Peddie
    Grayson Peddie says:

    For me, it is completely illogical for me to multitask, except when listening to music. But then I won’t be able to hear sounds around me.

    Speaking of not being able to hear sounds, I think that people who have severe hearing loss or those who are deaf should have their bike equipped with a mirror or two. But I strongly discourage those who can hear and use a bike to wear headphones to listen to music (Florida Statute 316.304). Besides, wearing a headphone while riding a bike is like wearing a headphone while driving a car.

  2. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Not trying to be the devil’s advocate on this, but have there been any studies on either motorists or cyclists wearing headphones being more likely to be involved in crashes? And especially for motorists, how does wearing headphones compare to a car stereo playing?

    Always seemed so illogical to me that you could outlaw headphones without outlawing (booming) car stereos ……

  3. Brrr
    Brrr says:

    I’m with Andrew. Audio distraction is the same regardless. A car stereo, headphones, a cell phone, a passenger, etc. My cycling time is my audio-book time, and I’m certainly more aware of the road and other traffic than I am inside a car with the stereo on. If anything, the earbuds block out wind noise so that I can hear better.

    Also, the study in question tested students, not adults. Young people are statistically not only worse drivers to begin with, but also notoriously poor decision makers in general due to a frontal lobe that’s not fully developed yet. I’d like to see a comparison across different ages of drivers before I’d believe that the “super-tasker” number is so low.

  4. Brrr
    Brrr says:

    I just read more of the study. They made the students do math problems and memorize words. How many people are ever that involved in a cell-phone conversation in the car?

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      >How many people are ever that involved in a cell-phone conversation in the car?<

      If you are a salesman (who live and die by the use of the phone) you are "that involved" all the time. If you are a tradesman, it is hard to tell customers to stop telling you what the problem is, so "all the time" there, too.

      The problem with a cell phone starts when a response is necessary. That requires more thought than just listening (unless it's your mother in which case it is, "Uh, huh.")

      A passenger can see that things are getting a little dicey and shut up, but someone on the other end of the phone can't know that.

      State laws vary, but in Florida auto drivers are allowed one ear earphones.

  5. Bill
    Bill says:

    Eric has it right. Chances are good if you are talking on a cell phone and driving it is an important conversation with your boss, a customer or client, or a family member, and will involve and distract you.

    Before I realized just how distracting such conversations can be, I missed freeway exits and cut other drivers off while talking. And I almost always used a hands free earphone. Now that I’m aware of the danger I don’t get involved in those kinds of conversations while driving.

    And we haven’t discussed texting yet.

    Our esteemed state legislature is considering legislation to ban texting and hand-held telephone conversations. Even if that passes the distraction danger from involved conversations remains.

    Drivers need to be made aware and convinced of the danger so they will voluntarily stop.

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