Less Than 3 Percent Can Talk on Cell Phone and Drive Safely
Are you a multitasker? How about a supertasker? If you are, you are among the less than 3 percent of people who can talk on a cell phone and drive safety. Obviously, however, that leaves the vast majority of people incapable of driving and talking on their cell phone simultaneously.
Researchers at the University of Utah report that only 2.5 percent of the population can be classified as supertaskers, individuals who have the ability to successfully—and that is the critical word—do two activities at the same time. In the study recently completed, the two activities included talking on a cell phone and using a driving simulator.
Although on the surface this study seems to be about cell phone use while driving, the study’s authors, psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, note that its importance lies in that “it challenges current theories of multitasking.” Results of this study may eventually help scientists better understand the areas of the brain that are responsible for supertakers’ special abilities.
The researchers arrived at their conclusions by evaluating the performance of 200 volunteers while they performed simulated freeway driving, and then again while they also attempted to talk on a cell phone. The researchers measured the volunteers’ breaking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.
Overall, the participants’ performance was impaired when they tried to drive while talking on a hands-free cell phone. While performing simultaneous tasks, braking time was 20 percent longer, following distances increased 30 percent, memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to perform math problems decreased by 3 percent. The loss of abilities while performing both tasks was comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.
Among a few participants, however, there was no change in braking times, following distances, or math ability, and their memory skills improved by 3 percent. However, only 2.5 percent of the volunteers fit into the supertasker category. Watson noted that “According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist.” The problem is, there are many more people who are simultaneously driving and talking on a cell phone than there are supertaskers.
For now, the investigators believe psychologists may need to reexamine what they know about multitasking and see what they can learn from the results of this study. The rapid advancement of technology and the growing demands on people’s ability to keep up with it make it important for researchers to better understand how the brain processes information.
The authors have expanded their investigation of multitasking and are studying expert fighter pilots to see if they have these special abilities. One thing is strongly suggested by the cell phone study: the vast majority of people who drive and talk on their cell phone simultaneously do not have the ability to do so safely. True supertaskers are uncommon, and scientists may discover very useful information about the workings of the brain by studying these high-performance individuals.
University of Utah