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Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Dangers of Multitasking

Driver Inattention Responsible for Almost 80 Percent of Accidents

In a joint study released in April 2006, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that nearly 80 percent of accidents could be averted if drivers paid more attention to the road. The study equipped 100 cars with cameras and sensors, which logged nearly two million miles. Participating drivers had 82 real accidents and 761 near crashes.

Distracted driving is a national problem, according to a November 2006 survey conducted by Nationwide Insurance. Of 1,200 respondents, ages 18 to 60, 73 percent revealed that they use a cell phone while driving, while 68 percent admitted to eating while driving. Others said they shave, read, and even paint their toenails in traffic.

Perhaps the most distracted drivers are our gadget-obsessed teen drivers. In a national survey conducted by State Farm Insurance and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia released in January 2007, over half the teens polled reported that they witnessed other teens driving while text messaging or using handheld games and other tech gadgetry.

These young drivers who multitask are a major concern. "They use cell phones more than adults generally," says John Ulczycki, executive director of the transportation safety group at the National Safety Council (NSC). "So you have drivers with the least amount of experience willingly taking on high risk."

Because not all accidents are reported, and drivers in accidents are reluctant to admit they were eating a bagel or changing radio stations, it's uncertain exactly how much of the economic cost of car accidents can be attributed to distracted driving (it is currently believed to be about $230 billion annually in the United States). But driver distractions contribute to 25 percent of all reported accidents, if NHTSA estimates are correct.

That's a low-end figure, believes Bill Windsor of the Office of Safety at Nationwide Insurance. "Distracted driving is increasingly becoming a problem," he says. "It's clear to us that Americans are doing everything in their cars but concentrating on driving."

Blaming our hectic lifestyles, Windsor continued, "People have a lot to do and little time to do it, so we've all become multitaskers. It carries over into the car as well. But driving a car requires focus, so multitasking puts you and others in danger."

That seems obvious, right? Yet the Nationwide survey reveled some surprising results. Maybe the most shocking admission was from a young San Antonio woman who admitted she "shaved legs, ate a taco, put on makeup and drank alcohol" while driving. While driving, one Memphis, Tennessee, woman bottle-fed her baby—who was in the backseat! A Sacramento, California, student revealed that she sometimes studied open notebooks while racing 75 mph down the highway.

The Seattle Times, after a multi-car pileup last December on Seattle’s Interstate 5 caused by a driver using a PDA, asked readers to e-mail their riskiest behind-the-wheel behavior. One woman claimed to make coleslaw while driving. "It's my signature dish to take to picnics," she justified, "and I’m always running late." After purchasing the pre-shredded cabbage, she waits for a stoplight or "a lot of room between me and the car in front," then whips the dish up.

Although these stories are shocking, many people don’t think about the danger. "In most cases, in the amount of time that these activities take, nothing much happens, so drivers get away with these distractions," says Tim Brown, PhD, of the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), a high-tech testing facility on the University of Iowa campus. "The problem is that things change very quickly when you’re driving. Let's say you're in a residential neighborhood and a ball bounces in front of your car. You know that a kid is probably behind the ball, so you slow down. But let's say that during the time you're looking away, you miss the ball. Now you're not thinking about a kid, and you don’t slow down. When you're distracted, you miss those early warning signs."

Brown feels we're not good at perceiving visual change unless we actually see the change occur. If we're looking, it's easy to see brake lights flash on the car in front of us. But if we're distracted or busy doing other tasks, we may not notice that the taillights have become brighter until we're right on top of them. "It's a form of change blindness," he says. "You miss those transitional cues."

And when you miss those clues, a lot can happen. The usual distraction lasts three seconds, which is the time it takes for a car going 68 mph to travel the length of a football field. Says Brown, "Even in as little as a second, you can prevent 40 to 60 percent of rear-end crashes."

Researchers at the NADS facility in Iowa City found virtually no difference in reaction time between those using handheld phones, hands-free headsets and speakerphones—although drivers fumbling with clamshell phones showed a bigger tendency to overcompensate on steering corrections.

"The distraction is not so much the physical act of using the phone as the process of talking and thinking," says senior team leader Omar Ahmad. "Someone in the car is aware of the surroundings and can modulate the conversation based on the situation," he explains. "A person on the other end of the cell phone can't see the traffic and is unlikely to pause when a car pulls out in front of you."

Still, experts say it won't be easy to convince busy drivers to keep their eyes on the road. Insurers are hoping that public awareness campaigns will help, but Ulczycki of the National Safety Council is unconvinced: "With seat belts and drunk driving, a lot of education had a very small effect. Only when we got tougher laws did people change their behaviors."

At the moment, five states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington) and Washington, D.C., ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving, and 16 more plus the District of Columbia limit their use by young drivers. But the laws are not easy to enforce.

Nationwide Insurance surveyed 1,200 American drivers in 2006. Among their admissions while driving were:

• Over 80% were multitaskers

• 59% said they’re not distracted drivers

• 82% adjust radio or CD player

• 73% talk on cell phones

• 68% eat a snack

• 19% send text messages

• 14% comfort kids

The technology that is responsible for so many driving distractions may actually hold a key to prevention. According to Ulczycki, phones that automatically disable non-emergency calls when the driver is in motion are in development by cell phone manufacturers. He says one company claims its phone will be able to discern if the caller is driving a car or, say, sitting in a park.

Also rising to the challenge are car manufacturers. Controls for radio and climate that are now commonly built in to the steering wheel make it easier to stay focused on the road. Some luxury cars come equipped with cameras that monitor the driver’s stare and sound an alarm at a distracted moment. Engineers at the University of Minnesota are working on a smart camera that monitors hand, arm and head changes. Another factor will be improvements to road design, including the increased use of rumble strips.

Besides all the danger involved, all that multitasking in the car might not improve your efficiency. In a scientific study published in the December, 2006 issue of the journal Neuron claims that multitasking simply doesn’t work. Participants were asked to identify different-colored images while simultaneously identifying a variety of sounds. Researchers then used an MRI to monitor brain activity. When both color and sound were introduced at the same time or within half a second of each other, the brain merely delayed responding to one until the other was performed.

Researchers deduced that the brain has a built-in "bottleneck" that prevents interferences caused by dueling thought processes. Some multitasking (like typing while talking) can be learned by practice. But many overlapping tasks (such as e-mailing while talking on the phone) are not really possible.

For more information about driver safety, The National Safety Commission and Lowest Price Traffic School offer safe teen driving resources for first time drivers and their parents. Click here for our monthly newsletter for teen drivers and the Driver Education Guide for Parents.

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