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Cell phone use, driving, and limited attention

distracted driving

Attention is a finite resource (Kahneman, 1973) and most cognitive activities – talking, remembering, carrying on a conversation – require some amount of these  limited resources. This means, from a practical perspective, that there is a limit to the number of tasks in which we can concurrently engage. Multi-tasking, or attempting to perform multiple tasks at once, generally results in poorer performance on all tasks. Experimental evidence has repeatedly demonstrated that talking on a cell phone while driving – in a simulator, of course!) results in marked impairment in braking times, detecting road signals, and maintaining a safe distance from other cars (Strayer & Johnston, 2001; Strayer & Drews, 2007). The degree of impairment can be comparable to the impairment in driving observed when one drives under the influence of alcohol (Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006) and measures of brain activity show decreased reactivity to traffic signals while talking on a phone (Strayer, Drews, & Johnston, 2003).

Even when the evidence suggests that reducing the amount of attentional resources available for a demanding task such as driving can be highly detrimental to the safety of those in and out of the car, a majority of drivers, at some point, will talk on a phone while driving (estimates of up to 10% of drivers on the road at any given time; Glassbrenner, 2005) and will readily acknowledge that they have seen other drivers drive poorly because of cell phone use (Strayer, Drews, & Johnston, 2003). Thus, many drivers engage in behavior that they recognize as harmful. As noted by Watson and Strayer (2010) in a paper that appeared in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, a large number of individuals claims that talking on a cell phone has no effect on their ability to drive.  To examine whether this might indeed be the case – that a number of drivers are indeed not affected by a dual-task situation such as driving and talking on a cell phone, Watson and Strayer recruited 200 participants and administered a challenging cognitive task in a driving simulator. The task, known as Operation Span, is a measure of working memory and requires participants to solve arithmetic problems while concurrently remembering words (Unsworth et al., 2005). Compared to when either task was performed under full attention conditions – i.e., when participants only did the cognitive task or only drove – for the vast majority of participants, the dual task impaired performance on both tasks. In sum, memory, mathematical ability, and driving were all worse when participants were trying to do both things at once. Interestingly, Watson and Strayer did find five participants (2.5% of the sample) who showed no decline in performance on either task – a subset of individuals they referred to as “supertaskers” because of their rare ability to perform two attention-demanding tasks at once.

Thus, although there is a very small number of individuals who might indeed be able to drive without impairment while talking on a phone, for the majority of us dual task situations or dividing our finite attentional resources is not a good idea – especially when the potential costs of an error are so high as in driving. Based on other research, even highly practiced tasks, such as talking, can be negatively affected by distraction (Becic et al., 2010), as can be the memory for those conversations. Most of us, alas, are not “above average” and need to remember that our attention is limited – and hang up the phone!

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