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