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The Multi-Tasking Myth


Many of us think we can do two things at once. In fact, many of us pride ourselves on doing more than one thing at a time. In our fast-paced world, doing multiple tasks at once, or multi-tasking, seems to be almost a necessity in order to keep up with our daily life. But multi-tasking is a myth according to many scientific studies. Our brains cannot focus on two cognitive tasks at the same time and pay either one the attention it needs.


We think we are being safe by using hands-free devices while driving. We have a hands-free cell phone, GPS, and music system. So why not send an email or text, and catch up on a few phone calls while driving home from work as long as our hands stay on the wheel and our eyes on the road? Because studies show that drivers using any type of cell phone, hand-free or hand-held, are four times more likely to be involved in a car crash than those not using cell phones. The reason? Listening to and being involved in conversation decreases activity in the parietal lobe, the area of the brain that processes movement of visual images and is important for safe driving, by as much as 37% according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University. Drivers talking on cell phones can miss seeing up to 50% of their driving environment—including pedestrians and red lights. The drivers look but do not see. This phenomenon is called “inattention blindness.” Driving and talking with passengers is not the same level of impairment because a passenger can see the road and hear approaching vehicles, and therefore can provide an extra set of eyes and ears. Passengers can also react to times of heavy traffic and bad weather conditions by stopping conversation whereas people on the other end of a cell phone cannot.

The multi-tasking myth can lead to huge amounts of cognitive distraction. In a controlled driving simulator study conducted by the University of Utah, drivers using cell phones were found to have slower reaction times than drivers with .08 blood alcohol concentration levels, the legal intoxication limit.


With ever-more sophisticated systems being incorporated in automobiles, the problem of technology-facilitated cognitive distraction will only increase. So far, states have had varied responses to the risk posed by multi-tasking drivers and the increase in traffic fatalities since the rise in cell phone use. Fourteen states and D.C. prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones, and thirty-eight states and D.C. ban the use of all cell phones by novice drivers. These laws are primary enforcement laws, meaning that police officers can pull a driver over for this offense alone. Forty-six states and D.C. ban texting for all drivers, and all but five of those laws are primary enforcement laws. Of the four states that do not have total bans on texting, two ban novice drivers, and one restricts school bus drivers. (Georgia bans novice drivers from the use of hand-held cell phones, and all drivers from texting; both laws are primary enforcement laws.)

Notably, of the states with texting bans, either for novice drivers under 21 or a total ban, and either primary or secondary enforcement, the most effective laws were primary enforcement of texting bans for the 15-21 population, which were associated with an 11% reduction in incidence of motor vehicle fatalities. No states currently ban the use of hand-free phones for all drivers, even though research shows that they offer no improvement in safety over hand-held devices. Perhaps a good next step would be for all states to adopt primary enforcement of texting bans. The next logical step after that would be to ban the use of hand-free phones…but given the persistence of the multi-tasking myth and drivers’ obsession with their devices…it may take awhile.

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Thomas Law Firm
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