Expert Commentary

Multitasking, texting and distracted driving: Researchers discuss cognitive effects and risks

Researchers from Kentucky University, West Virginia University, Harvard and Stanford discuss the risks of using mobile devices while driving and the impact of multitasking on how we process information.

An often-observed human trait is for us to overestimate our own abilities — for example, a 1980 study of 161 U.S. and Swedish residents found that 88% of the Americans considered themselves to be safer-than-average drivers, while 77% of the Swedes held the same belief. A similar contradiction appears to apply the use of mobile devices while in a car: A 2012 survey of more than 3,900 U.S. adults found that 82.9% felt that texting while driving was “completely unacceptable,” yet 34.7% admitted to reading an email or text in the past 30 days — and the actual rate is probably much higher.

Laws against such behavior are on the rise, but their effectiveness depends on the legal specifics and the level of enforcement: A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that laws allowing police officers to pull over all drivers who are texting, regardless of age, resulted in a 5% reduction in fatal accidents among individuals ages 15-21. “Secondary” bans, which only allow texting citations when drivers are pulled over for other reasons, had no effect on fatality rates.

A growing body of work is looking at the effects of multitasking in the digital age. Research suggests that multitasking can actually reduce productivity because the brain is forced to jump back and forth between tasks rather than simultaneously focusing on two things. Neurobiologists, psychologists and social scientists have also begun to delve into the longer-term effects of living in a state of near-constant multitasking.


“The Dangers of Texting and Driving,” Kentucky University’s Paul Atchley discusses the substantial risks that drivers take by sending text messages from behind the wheel. Atchley has authored a number of papers on the subject, including “The Effects of Perception of Risk and Importance of Answering and Initiating a Cellular Phone Call While Driving,” 2009; and “The Choice to Text and Drive in Younger Drivers: Behavior May Shape Attitude,” 2011.


“Preventing Deadly Distracted Driving,” Harvard School of Public Health. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Jay A. Winsten, HSPH Associate Dean, talk about distracted driving as a public health issue. Winsten is the author of “Promoting Designated Drivers: The Harvard Alcohol Project,” among other studies.


“What Were You Thinking? The Myth of Multitasking,” Clifford Nass of Stanford University talks about how our desire to constantly multitask plays out in the car, even when a driver is not using his or her phone. Deborah Trombley of the National Safety Council then specifically discusses driving while using the phone. Among other relevant papers, Nass co-authored “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers” in 2009.


“The (Cognitive) Trouble with Multitasking” and “Media Multitasking: Scope and Consequences.” Professor Elizabeth Cohen of West Virginia University discusses the psychological underpinnings of how we multitask and its negative effects on everyday brain function. She also discusses “media multitasking,” the increasing tendency to utilize multiple media at once, such as using a computer or cellphone while watching television. Among other papers, she is the co-author of “How Low-Income Residents Decide Between Emergency and Primary Health Care for Non-Urgent Treatment.”


Related research: A 2013 study in Public Health Reports, “Distracted Driving: Voice-Activated Systems and Drivers’ Reaction Times,” found that the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by distracted drivers has risen significantly — for pedestrians, the fatality rate due to distracted driving increased 45% from 2005 to 2010, and for cyclists it jumped 32%.

Keywords: cognition, multitasking, road safety, driving, technology, video roundup

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