Multitasking while driving: ineffective, dangerous, deadly

Multitasking while driving: ineffective, dangerous, deadly

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

WASHINGTON, December 14, 2015  – Our brains are incapable of doing more than one thing at a time optimally well. Despite the claims of many who tell us they can accomplish many things at once and do them well, studies have proven those claims are not true.

Distracted driving remains one of the most deadly of multitasking efforts. Texting while driving (TWD), a form of distracted driving, is the single most dangerous activity.  We see this, unfortunately, over and over again in news reports. TWD is too often the cause of automobile accidents, injuries and deaths.

When we need to pay attention to something, an area toward the front of our brain called the prefrontal cortex wakes up and takes over. The prefrontal cortex extends into both the left and the right side of our brain, and has been described as our brain’s motivational system.

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It helps focus our attention on something and coordinates messages with other brain systems to allow us to complete the task.

Both sides of the prefrontal cortex work together when focused on a single task; they work independently when we attempt to focus on two tasks at once.

A study in Paris conducted by the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medical used functional magnetic resonance imaging (a diagnostic tool that allows a view of brain activity) on study participants who were asked to perform two tasks at once. The researchers told the group they’d get a reward for accurately completing one of the two tasks.

The result? Nerve cell activity was seen to increase on one side of the brain. The researchers then told the group the reward would be for the other task. Yes – the other side of the brain was seen with higher activity. The study made clear that when two activities are attempted at the same time, the brain divides in half.

When a third activity was introduced to the group, participants regularly forgot one of the three tasks. The participants made three times as many errors as they had when they were attempting only two tasks.

Texting while driving is a disaster waiting to happen. It involves at least three separate tasks. Often, the “driving” task is the one forgotten.

Texting while driving forces our brains into multiple tasks:

  1. We “want” to focus on all of the stimuli that are involved in proper driving — looking at the road, at other vehicles, at road or highway signs, etc. This is a mental process that takes its cues from our eyes, which then sends signals to our brains, which in turn activates our motivational system.
  1. We next “want” to focus on the needed physical responses to the stimulus our brains are processing to drive properly, including adjusting speed, braking or stopping if necessary, changing lanes, using a horn, and much more, again activating our motivational system.

We have learned to do these “driving” things together, seamlessly.

  1. We “want” to interpret the text message content and reply, requiring that our eyes physically move from the business of driving to the device (mobile phone) used for texting.

The TWD problem comes when we introduce other demands on our brain at the same time when we are supposed to be focused on driving; specifically, the desire to interpret texts received, or to send them.

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Implicit in that texting process is that in addition to the physical acts of texting, there are many instances that require an additional mental focus on the texting conversation beyond simply the instant “interpretation”.

If someone texts you they are now at the restaurant, that is markedly different than someone asking you via text where you want to eat.

The additional mental focus takes attention away from driving.

Texting requires (1) mental, and (2) visual attention, and (3) that we use one of our hands. All of these pull on our brain’s motivational system.

Texting while driving creates cognitive, or mental distraction, visual distraction, and manual distraction.

Interestingly, by comparison, texting while driving is six times more dangerous than driving while intoxicated. This is because DWI does not involve manual distraction.

Car and Driver magazine conducted a study, rigging a car to alert drivers when to brake. They tested how long it took the driver to brake when sober, first when legally drunk at .08, then when reading an e-mail, and finally when sending a text. Driving at 70 miles per hour, drivers were slower and slower reacting and braking when e-mailing and texting.

The results:

Unimpaired: .54 seconds to brake

Legally drunk: add 4 feet

Reading e-mail: add 36 feet

Sending a text: add 70 feet

Regular multitasking hurts your brain.

A 2009 Stanford University study found that people who are regularly involved with multiple streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one task to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

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Further, the more you do, the worse you will perform. The study showed heavy multi-taskers underperformed light multi-taskers.

Those who think that multitasking boosts their performance were actually worse at doing multiple things than those who normally preferred to do only one thing at a time. The frequent multi-taskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information. They were slower at switching from one task to another.

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Your brain literally lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Research has found that productivity is reduced by as much as 40 percent when multitasking. Switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow us down.

Multitasking involves two separate brain processes. The first is “goal shifting,” or, deciding to do one thing instead of another. The second is “role activation,” or changing the rules from the prior task to the new task. Switching between these takes time, perhaps only a few tenths of a second in some instances. If you are switching back and forth repeatedly, this time “drain” can add up.

Watching television and folding laundry is multitasking, and it is not important that time delays occur with either of these tasks. Where safety is at stake, such as when driving a car, even small amounts of time can prove critical.

Put your telephone down when you get into the car. Live to tell us about your trip, and allow all those on the road who were around you when you were driving to do the same.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website:



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