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Multitasking and driving: why it's a bad idea

Multitasking and driving: why it's a bad idea

Most people know how dangerous it is to use their cellphone while driving thanks to national campaigns highlighting the risk of accidents and the push in many legislatures to curb this reckless behavior. Some of our more frequent readers have even seen the most recent crash statistics that illustrate just how dangerous cellphone use behind the wheel is.

But even though we know about the risks and dangers, a majority of people continue to partake in this reckless behavior every year. That's because some people consider themselves to be such good multitaskers that they believe they can successfully use their cellphone while driving without getting into an accident. But is this really true? Scientists say no.

Contrary to what most people think, when we multitask, our brains are not concentrating on multiple tasks simultaneously but rather switching between them at a high rate of speed. Instead of focusing all of our attention on one task and doing it well, we are dividing our attention to perform multiple tasks, which is a choice some say causes us to perform neither task well.

When we perform similar tasks -- such as talking to a passenger and reading a text message -- we use the same part of the brain, which causes the brain to become overwhelmed, leading to mistakes. "You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks," explains Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT. It's because of this that serious motor vehicle accidents occur.

As science points out, we are worse at multitasking than we believe. We are unable to control when our brains become overwhelmed with data, which is why legislatures across the nation, including here in California, have pushed for legislation to ban the use of cellphones while driving. It's a small effort to protect other drivers, but it could have a huge affect on other drivers down the road.

Source: NPR, "Think You're Multitasking? Think Again," Jon Hamilton, Oct. 2, 2008

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