I have a friend who puts her cellphone in the trunk of her car before she gets behind the wheel. She doesn’t trust herself to not make calls or check emails while driving. This may seem like an extreme measure. Why not just ignore the phone ringing or the sound of a text arriving? Yet,for most of us, there is something very difficult to resist when we hear those pleasant tones and buzzes, compelling us to respond ASAP. This may be why a recent study revealed that while most of us know that texting while driving isn’t such a great idea, most of us have done it at some time or another.
Professor David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist, studies why we just can’t seem to say no to our smartphones, and how these compulsive behaviors can be risky while driving. He was the scientist who showed that talking on your cellphone while driving could impair your ability equivalent to driving under the influence. Recently, TechKnow spent a few days at his labs at the University of Utah, checking out how he and his team of researchers measure just how distracting different kinds of behaviors are for drivers. Turns out, there are different levels of distraction, and Strayer and his team have developed a five point rating scale.
Don’t worry, you can probably still listen to the radio or the latest podcast of Serial without putting yourself or passengers at risk. But as soon as you start talking on a cellphone (hands –free or not) or, even worse, trying to communicate to your new car’s voice-activated messaging system, your level of distraction increases. Basically, talking of any kind makes the prefrontal cortex part of your brain work—and work hard. Researchers believe this mental workload interferes with the brain’s visual processing as well as rational decision making abilities. Woops….these are precisely the abilities you need in order to drive safely.
But there is a small fragment of the population who actually can safely drive while using their smartphones. Strayer calls them supertaskers. Put simply, supertaskers have more efficient brains; Strayer’s initial studies show their brains exhibit less metabolic activity than the average person’s when handling two or three demanding tasks at the same time. The bad news is that only about two percent of the population are members of this elite minority of supertaskers. They are the true multi-taskers…. while the rest of us are wannabes who probably should lock our phones in the trunk.