A lot of myths surround the idea of multi-tasking. According to the online etymology dictionary, the term itself came about for the first time in 1966, and only had to do with computing. It wasn’t until as recent as 1998 that the term was traced to usage in how humans, not just computers, process information. Current research highlighted by the National Safety Council shows the idea of doing two thinking tasks at one time, as the term has popularly come to mean, is a myth.
According to this sobering fact sheet from the National Safety Council, there are several myths about distracted driving to we hope to dispel.
Myth #1: Drivers can multitask.
Driving and talking on the phone is not like walking and chewing gum. Walking and chewing gum don’t involve much cognitive function, or concentration. Driving and holding a conversation, however, do involve those areas of the brain that require a lot of thought. Research shows that the mind can’t do two distinct thinking tasks at the same time; instead, it switches back and forth very quickly between the two activities. It may look like someone is doing both at the same time, but the brain doesn’t work that way. Those brief interruptions in focus can mean that the driver is on autopilot. And autopilot can’t react when something unexpected occurs.
Myth #2: It makes no difference between talking to someone on the phone and talking to someone in the car.
The primary difference is that when both parties are present in the car, there are potentially more eyes on the road. A passenger can notice a ball rolling into the street, or a car braking ahead even if the driver is deeply engaged in conversation at that moment. Data also shows that passengers and driver adjust their conversation during complicated road conditions. If the driver is the only one present, these signals can be missed and in a split-second, a serious collision may occur. A 2008 study conducted by the University of Utah found that drivers distracted by their cell phone calls are more oblivious than those having a conversation without the phone. They are the only ones aware of what’s going on around them.
Myth #3: Hands-free devices eliminate the danger of cell phone use during driving.
The same idea that debunks the previous two myths is also in effect here. It’s not what the hands are doing as much as what the thinking/reacting brain can’t do. Even if a driver is not physically touching the phone or looking away from the road, a driver can only be mentally focused on one thing at a time. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found this alarming statistic, that activity in the part of the brain that processes movement of visual images and is important for safe driving (the parietal lobe), decreases by 37% when listening to language. Because of what’s been named “inattention blindness” a driver can miss half of what’s changing in their visual environment, including a pedestrian who steps into the crosswalk, or even a red light. As an example of how devastating inattention blindness can be, one driver hit and killed a 12-year old boy named Joe. The driver failed to see a red light ahead, even though four cars and a school bus had all stopped in the adjacent lane. Witnesses testified that they saw her looking straight ahead, and yet did not even brake.
Myth #4: Distracted drivers have a quicker reaction time than drunk drivers.
Not so, says a study conducted by the University of Utah. Researchers found drivers using cell phones reacted slower than drivers who had a .08 BAC, the legal limit for intoxication. The difference is a driver with a cell phone can turn it off, while a drunk driver must avoid driving until sober.
Please be aware of the limitations distracted driving puts on your ability to be a safe or legal driver. As the statistics continue to show the dangers of cell phone usage and other distractions, the laws are changing to reflect that. Do whatever you must to avoid the temptation to use any of these devices, despite their bells and whistles that draw one’s attention. Turn it off, put it out of reach, and focus on getting from point A to B safely.