Drivers of all experience levels believe they have the skill and attention necessary to complete certain other tasks while behind the wheel. From making a phone call to eating dinner after a long shift at work, drivers believe they can effectively multitask: safely complete more than one task at the same time. Unfortunately, numerous psychological studies show that multitasking in people is largely a myth.
Originally popularized by the computer industry, the concept of multitasking was essential in describing how an electronic device could complete numerous functions at the same time by dividing attention. While people soon adopted this concept, it did not translate into the way the human brain worked.
People cannot efficiently focus on more than one task at the same time. Humans do not multitask. Researchers refer to what people do as “task-switching.” This means that an individual focuses on one task, quickly switches focus to another task before switching back. Unfortunately, even a simple task while behind the wheel represents a cognitive distraction for the driver.
What is a cognitive distraction?
Since drivers only focus on one task at any given time, that means that all other tasks are being ignored. While having a phone conversation, the driver is focusing their mental energy on the conversation rather than the task of driving. This is a cognitive distraction. Any activity that pulls focus from the safe operation of the motor vehicle forces the driver to devote their attention to that new task.
It is important to remember that “multitasking” and “task-switching” are not the same mental function. A driver who focuses on anything other than driving is at risk for causing serious collisions with deadly consequences. When you hear someone discuss their aptitude for multitasking, remember that this is not a concept that translates to how the human mind works.