Driven to distraction
'We can chew gum and walk, but we can't do two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously.'
Tuesday, March 15, 2011 - 18:13
Photo: Jill Dolowich
As a new driver, I am often perplexed by the number of people who choose to talk on their cell phones or check their text messages while driving. Do drivers truly believe that driving does not require keen attention to detail and surroundings? Or perhaps they are just efficient "multitaskers," able to keep one eye on the road and the other on their inbox?
I recently read a brilliant article in The American Scholar by William Deresiewicz, entitled "Solitude and Leadership." In the article, Deresiewicz discusses the art of multitasking, and poses the following question: Which demographic group is the most proficient at multitasking? A recently published study by a team of researchers at Stanford answers this question with surprising data.
The investigators wanted to figure out how today's college students are seemingly able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do their homework, chat online with several friends, and play a computer game, all at the same time? The answer was simple: they don't. The enhanced cognitive abilities that the investigators expected to find in college students, these mental faculties that enable them to multitask effectively, were simply not there.
In other words, we do not multitask effectively. And here's the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they become at multitasking itself. Participants were more distracted and they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking — switching between tasks. Multitasking, in short, does not only involve "not thinking," but it impairs your ability to think and perform.
So can the drivers around my neighborhood possibly focus on both traffic signals and their text messages? The Ford car company apparently believes in our ability to multitask. In Maureen Dowd's February 2011 editorial, "If you can chew gum and walk, can you drive and tweet," Dowd profiles the Ford SYNC, an elaborate in-car connectivity system. SYNC can even receive text messages and read them aloud using a digitized female voice, "Samantha." SYNC can interpret 100 or so shorthand messages such as LOL for "laughing out loud." This system allows the driver to sync up to phone apps and will read your Twitter feeds to you.
It seems that a system like SYNC will only make today's drivers more distracted. In Dowd's article, she quotes David Teater, a member of the National Safety Council who lost his 12-year-old son in a distracted driving accident. Teater is now active in the fight against driving and multitasking. He outlines the difference between performing two brainless tasks at the same time, like chewing gum and walking, and the mental effort that SYNC requires. As Teater points out, "We can chew gum and walk, but we can't do two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously."
What can our generation do to prevent further senseless tragedies? Stay off the phone while driving, and wait until you get home to tweet about what you had for breakfast.