Today there are more than 280 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. Even though public sentiment appears to be turning against cell phone use while driving, many admit they regularly talk or text while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 11 percent of all drivers at any given time are using cell phones, and the National Safety Council estimates more than one in four motor vehicle crashes involve cell phone use at the time of the crash.
Multitasking is valued in today’s culture, and our drive for increased productivity makes it tempting to use cell phones while behind the wheel. People often think they are effectively accomplishing two tasks at the same time.And yes, they may complete a phone conversation while they drive and arrive at their destination without incident, thus accomplishing two tasks during the same time frame. However, there are two truths to this common belief.
1. People actually did not “multitask.”
2. People did not accomplish both tasks with optimal focus and effectiveness.
Multitasking is a myth. Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Brains can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to erroneously believe we are doing two tasks at the same time. In reality, the brain is switching attention between tasks – performing only one task at a time.
In addition to “attention switching,” the brain engages in a constant process to deal with the information it receives:
1. Select the information the brain will attend to
2. Process the information
3. Encode, a stage that creates memory
4. Store the information.
Depending on the type of information, different neural pathways and different areas of the brain are engaged. Therefore, the brain must communicate across its pathways.
Furthermore, the brain must go through two more cognitive functions before it can act on saved information. It must:
5. Retrieve stored information
6. Execute or act on the information.
When the brain is overloaded, all of these steps are affected. People may not realize this challenge within their brains. A driver’s response to sudden hazards, such as another driver’s behavior, weather conditions, work zones, animals or objects in the roadway, often is the critical factor between a crash and a near-crash. When the brain is experiencing an increased workload, information processing slows and a driver is much less likely to respond to unexpected hazards in time to avoid a crash.
Eliminating driver distraction due to cell phone use faces significant challenges, even beyond combating drivers’ desire to be connected and productive. Drivers can help avoid this by informing frequent callers that they will not participate in phone conversations while driving. When facing multiple demands for their cognitive attention, drivers may not be aware they are missing critical visual information, and they may not be aware of the full impact of that oversight. This lack of awareness of the distraction could prolong it. Widespread education is needed about the risks of hands-free devices, conversation and cognitive distraction.
There is a shared responsibility among all involved in cell phone conversations to avoid calling and talking while driving – including drivers, callers and the people that drivers may call. Vehicle manufacturers are including more wireless and voice recognition communications technologies in vehicles, but their impact on distraction has yet to be fully studied. Consumers should consider their exposure to cognitive distraction and increased crash risk while using these in-vehicle technologies. Happy Holidays and Happy un-distracted driving to all.