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Distracted driving expert: Multitaskers aren’t as successful as they think

Of course, you’ve surely heard that texting while driving or driving while talking on a cellphone don’t mix. Now, new research suggests that those most likely to multitask while behind the wheel are also the least capable of doing it successfully.

David Strayer

David Strayer and David Sanbonmatsu, who are psychology professors at the University of Utah, co-authored the research study, which was published in PLOS ONE, an online journal of the Public Library of Science. spoke with Strayer, one of the world’s leading experts on multitasking, about their findings.

What prompted you and your colleagues to do this research?

We wanted to know who is most likely to multitask. Often people do things frequently if they are good at them (such as playing basketball because you’re good at it), and we wanted to know if those who multitask the most are the best at it. Turns out that it is the opposite; the more likely you are to multitask, the more likely that you are bad at it.

What kind of person tends to drive and text or drive and use a cellphone?

People who are more likely to multitask tend to be overconfident and score high on measures of impulsivity and sensation-seeking, despite the fact that their actual ability to multitask tends to be lower than average. So, the person talking or texting behind you on the drive home should be cause for concern.

A lot of people tend to harbor an illusion that they’re really good at multitasking, which leads them to continue to do it even in situations where it might be unsafe.

You say practice doesn’t make perfect when it comes to multitasking while driving. Why not?

At least in the context of driving, you cannot become an expert at multitasking.

A child running across the street, a traffic light changing really quickly, someone pulling in front of you – those unexpected events are one-offs. You can’t be prepared for a kid who is going to run across the street a week from now. And the same thing goes for conversations or texting. Reacting to novel events while driving and carrying on a unique conversation places a demand on our limited attention.

What are the most common dangers of driving while texting or talking on the phone?

Texting is a triple whammy. Where you’re taking your eyes off the road to either send the text or look at the text or read the text, your eyes aren’t on the road. We know that if you take your eyes off the road for more than about two and a half seconds, the chance of crashing increases significantly. And we know that if you don’t have your hands on the steering wheel, that you’re also at risk. So if you’re sending a text message, you’re using one or both hands to manipulate the phone either to read or to send a text, so the manual components are also in play.

The third part is cognitive distractions – when your mind is on something other than the road.

So you tend to find people … having a difficult time staying in their lanes, having the appropriate follow space and not running traffic lights.

We know where to start to prevent someone from drinking and driving. Any advice on talking someone out of driving while multitasking?

Take a look at the victim's advocacy group The website tells stories of family who lost (someone close, such as a family member or spouse) because of a simple text or cellphone call.

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