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Study: Cell Phone-Using Drivers Are Bad at Multitasking

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Multitasking- Texting and Driving

Multitasking: texting and driving. (Photo shot in Phuket City, Thailand.)

People who use cell phones the most while driving appear to be the least capable of multitasking, according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS | One. The peer-reviewed study was conducted by David M. Sanbonmatsu, David L. Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward, and Jason M. Watson, and examined the relationship between personality and individual differences in multitasking ability, especially as relates to a person’s ability to multitask while driving.

Nancy Shute writes the following in an article for the NPR blog shots:

Everybody complains that people shouldn’t talk on cellphones while driving. And yet it seems pretty much everybody does it.

That may be because so many of us think we’re multitasking ninjas, while the rest of the people nattering away while driving are idiots.

In an article posted on Yahoo! News, LiveScience.com writer Tia Ghose quotes study co-author David Sanbonmatsu, a psychologist at the University of Utah: “From a public safety perspective, it’s a little alarming that the people who report using a cellphone while driving the most are the persons who are the worst at multitasking.”

The researchers tested about 275 undergraduates, asking them how often they multitasked, how good they thought they were at it, and how impulsive they were. The study showed that those who often juggled many things performed the worst at the actual multitasking task they were given, Ghose writes. She adds that the study found that most people thought they were better than average at multitasking, and those people were the most likely to report using a cellphone while driving, or viewing multiple sources of media at once.

Shute quotes Sanbonmatsu:

People don’t multitask because they’re good at it. They do it because they are more distracted. They have trouble inhibiting the impulse to do another activity. [...]

People sometimes think multitasking means greater productivity. That’s not what the findings in the literature say at all. A lot of times people multitask because they can’t focus on the task that’s most important to them.

Ghose says that Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, who was not involved in the study, said one limitation of the study was that it could not  “tease out” whether people who are less focused to begin with gravitate toward multitasking, or whether multitasking itself changes people’s cognitive abilities.

Shute notes that “way back in 2008″ one study found that people who drive while using cell phones drive as poorly as people who are drunk. She reports that Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues will next look into why people text while driving even when they know it is dangerous.

According to Hands-Free Info, as of mid-November 2012, the Denver Police Department said it had written 165 texting and driving citations so far in 2012. Hands-Free Info reports that Colorado’s texting while driving laws are as follows: Text messaging is prohibited for all drivers in Colorado; drivers under 18 are prohibited from using cell phones as well as text messaging; and Colorado law prohibits drivers of all ages with any type of instruction permit from using a “mobile communication device,” including cell phones and text messaging units.

Image by Steven Parker.

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