During my most recent relocation from Albuquerque to Orlando, I drove a large truck about 1800 miles across the southern part of the country. The scenery was beautiful and the weather was mild. A busted fish tank in the back of the truck somewhere in Louisiana notwithstanding, the trip was great. There was however, one thing that had me worried from nearly the moment we got on the highway in the Sandia Mountains just east of ABQ. A car began to veer into my lane as if it were tracking an easterly heading without regard for the actual direction of the road. This scenario played out time and time again, state after state, over the next three days of driving. As you may have guessed by now, each of the drivers responsible for the veering vehicles was looking at their phone.
Why is it that we are willing to put not only our lives at risk, but also the lives of others? We've heard the stats. We know the risks. Texting and driving is, in fact, illegal in nearly every state in the country. However, in the event you’ve been living under a rock, there is some pretty insightful information on a variety of websites here http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/distracted-driving/topicoverview,
and here http://stoptextsstopwrecks.org/.
So, why do we do it (and I'll say “we” because I’ve done it too)? Many people simply believe it won't happen to them or they're “good at multitasking.” In today's “always on” and “connected 24/7” society, multitasking has been getting its fair share of attention. In the event you consider yourself a good multitasker, consider the science. First, when you multitask, what you’re actually doing is switching between performing two tasks very quickly, or “task switching.” Your brain has a finite capacity for accomplishing activities and unless one of them requires very little cognitive resources (e.g., breathing) then you're actually not doing them simultaneously (APA, 2006). There are cognitive costs associated with switching tasks, and when those cognitive costs become excessive or in conflict with the environment around you, bad things can happen - like not realizing you're now in the center lane when you started texting in the left lane.
Second, if you think you're good at 'multitasking' or task switching, simply put, you're not. There's also research that shows your perception of your 'multitasking abilities' is greatly inflated (Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Medeiros-Ward, Watson, 2013). Additionally, those individuals who reported the highest perceived ability to multitask had the most inflated opinions of their ability and were also the most likely to actually use a cell phone while driving.
Finally, and what I found most interesting, is that research also shows that "people who engage in multitasking often do so not because they have the ability but because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task" (Sanbonmatsu et al., pg 1, 2013). Interestingly the body of science related to an individual's inability to block out the distraction of the cell phone is growing. There is evidence a driver's texting and driving is due to a lack of self-control, an individual's unconscious tendencies, and may be related to an individual's mindfulness trait (Bayer & Campbell, 2012; Gray, 2015; Hayashi, Russo, Wirth, 2015; Bayer, Dal Cin, Campbell, Panek, 2016).
So think about this the next time you use your cell phone while driving - not only are you task switching (not multitasking) in a dynamic environment, one that can change quicker than you can react even if you were paying attention, but you're also not as good as you think you are at doing the task switching, and you're also terrible at maintaining self-control. As bored as we may be driving across the country or driving across town, we’re just simply not good at using our cell phone while driving, and far too much is at stake to make a mistake while driving. I’ve put down my cell phone – I hope you’ll do the same.
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