By on March 29, 2010


Most people can’t concentrate on the road while talking on the phone, as Jack E. Robinson, a Boston businessman and former candidate for governor of
Our Fair State discovered when he became the butt of jokes after crashing his car while participating in a radio call-in show. But one in forty people can do both at once, according to a new study from the University of Utah.

These individuals, which the researchers dubbed “supertaskers,” constitute a mere 2.5 percent of the population. The researchers–University of Utah psychology professors David L. Strayer and Jason M. Watson–hasten to add that the study confirms that most people CAN’T do both at once.

Watson and Strayer assessed the performance of 200 Utah undergraduates single-tasking simulated freeway driving, and again while simultaneously “driving” and holding a cell phone conversation in which they memorized words and did math problems.

When talking while driving, the non-supertaskers took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes, and following distances rose 30 percent as drivers failed to keep pace with the simulated traffic. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and ability to do simple math problems fell by three percent.  However, supertaskers displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances, or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved three percent.

Interestingly, the supertaskers’ performance on single tasks also was markedly superior to that of the run-of-the-mill H. sapiens.

In neuroimaging studies, the driving-cell phone multitasking appears to overtax the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the executive region of the brain, says Strayer. This shows up as unusually high metabolism in that region.

Watson and Strayer suspect that the supertaskers may be able to farm part of the work of multitasking out to other parts of the brain, based on studies of elderly adults who have shown little cognitive decline which were conducted by Roberto Cabeza of Duke University. These have shown “bilateral activation, both left and right brain trying to solve a problem,” says Strayer. “It’s like trying to lift a weight with both arms versus one arm.”

Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots, who they think may have extraordinary multitasking ability.

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19 Comments on ““Super Taskers” Can Phone and Drive. The Rest of Us Should Shut Up...”


  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    following distances rose 30 percent

    Then let’s please make cell use mandatory for MI drivers.

    What happened to Pch101? He used to point out that if cell phones were really the cause of accidents, we’d be awash in blood – as nearly everyone has a cell, and nearly everyone who has one talks on it while driving.

  • avatar
    PickupMan

    Next up, a bigger study to prove that YOU are NOT one of the top 2.5%, no matter what you think.

    50% of the people in the world are below average.

  • avatar

    Can you give a source for those statistics? I have a cell and I almost never use it while driving, and I never talk longer than a minute or two.

    • 0 avatar
      dhathewa

      It’s extremely rare for me to talk while driving.

      I also try to avoid calling people who I think might be driving and when I call a family member, the first thing I ask is, “Are you driving?” If they are, I tell them, very briefly, why I called and then get the heck off the phone.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    No, I don’t have any stats, but you don’t seriously think that most people put their phone away and don’t use it while driving, do you?

    I’m just going by what I see, and I see lots of people on cells, driving.

  • avatar
    redrum

    I think most would agree the chances you have of getting into an accident undoubtedly go up if you’re using a cell phone (supertaskers excepted), and news reports tend to phrase it in a way to grab maximum attention, e.g. “Driving with cell phone increases accidents by 90%”, which in real terms might only be 1.9 accidents per 1000 trips instead of 1 (I don’t know, just throwing out a number).

    Obviously being able to make a call in the car can be beneficial, even necessary, and the key is finding a balance between acceptable risk and responsible use.

  • avatar

    @Dynamic88
    Cells caused 7.2% of the accidents and near-collisions in the VA tech 100 car study, in which that number of DC area drivers had video cameras in their cars for a year, recording everything. Per unit time, ***talking*** on the cell was less dangerous than applying makeup or reaching for a moving object, but people spent far more time on the phone. Dialing and talking were responsible for equal numbers of incidents, pointing up the far greater danger per unit time of dialing, with its implications for texting dangers.

    I also wonder what happened to Pch101. I disagree with him on this one, but he was full of interesting commentary.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    @DH

    I have no reason to doubt the study you cite. I would just note that way more than 7.2% of drivers use cell phones – and often when driving. (As a side note, I wonder about “near collisions” – it’s not a bad thing to keep track of in a study, but you have to compare it to near collisions caused by fiddling with the CD changer, and putting on mascara, etc. I don’t think we have the stats for comparission, so maybe we should take the near collision data out and just talk about how many accidents were caused by cell phone use. I wonder what the % is when near colissions are removed? )

    The same sorts of fears and discussion came up when radios were first installed in cars. It was thought, at the time, no one could drive and listen at the same time. Few today would suggest radios are too dangerous a distraction. There is a radio in virtually every car today.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    As I drive around my region (same as yours, David), I notice when following any number of cars that when the phone goes up to the ear (you can readily observe this at moderate speeds), the driving becomes still more erratic. Yesterday, in about 150 miles of going here and there, I saw a lot of lousy driving, and I’m certain that much of it had nothing to do with cell phone activity. Many drivers have trouble staying in their lane, they slow down and speed up for no discernable reason, don’t use turn signals or only use them while well into a turn, don’t put their lights on in the rain (pickup truck drivers are the worst!), etc. I believe that the cell is just one more influence on an already bad situation.

  • avatar
    Brendon from Canada

    So in a nut shell – the study shows that some people are better at performing certain tasks then others? And here I thought everyone was equally adept at everything…

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      You’re missing the point. It’s not that some people are better than others, it’s that only 1 in 40 people can talk on a cell phone without impairing their driving ability.

  • avatar

    D88,
    >>>I would just note that way more than 7.2% of drivers use cell phones – and often when driving.
    ??? What’s the point here?

    As for the near collisions, there were video cameras in 100 cars for a year. You don’t get that many collisions. In the same way “markers” are used in clinical trials as surrogates for the clinical end point, which might be death or heart attack, or some such, near collision was used as a surrogate measure of how much the driving was affected.

  • avatar
    Mark out West

    So that means all pilots (about 1M in the U.S.) should be exempt from cell phone restrictions while driving.

    Actually, I think all drivers should be forced to sit in the pilot’s seat for a demo flight prior to obtaining their driver’s license. It’d show how mindnumbingly simple driving a car really is and maybe incentivize some folks to up their game a bit.

    If I can keep a airplane within 5 knots of its Vref and 10 feet of its assigned altitude, why can’t you maintain your car’s speed up and over the Cahuenga Pass?

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Any counterintuitive or unexpected assertions, no matter how compelling the scientific rigor that produced them might be, often seem to meet with great resistance in threads at this site. What exactly is this about? I find it surprising that these things seem to ignite so many heated reactions. Is it that there is subtext in much of it?

  • avatar
    ash78

    Even if you are a supertasker, surely putting down the phone will improve your driving somewhat.

    I think most opinions and studies on cell phones and driving are based on “50% stress” in either of the two activities. If driving suddenly becomes more demanding (or the conversation), there will inevitably be some sort of shift. Just because Supertaskers might be better at allocating their mental resources does not mean they’re just as good at driving while talking (vs driving without talking).

    Just my hypothesis…it all depends on how demanding the tasks are.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    @David Holzman

    My point – probably not stated very well in my post above, as I’d just gotten up and it was about 5am- is that cell phone use has proliferated over the past decade or 15 years, while highway safety has improved over the same period.

    If cell phones were actually the cause of accidents, then we’d expect accidents (not just fatals, but non-fatals too, to go up simply because cell use is up very substantially. Yet, just the opposite is happening. More people have cells, more people use them while driving, yet accidents (non-fatals, not just fatals) are going down.

    http://www.youhavealawyer.com/blog/2008/06/17/non-fatal-accidents/

    I emphasize non-fatals because it’s possible to argue that fatal accidents are down do to improved safety equipment. But non-fatals are down as well, which shouldn’t be, what with so many more people over the past decade using the dangerous cell phone while they drive.

    My quibble with “near collisions” or near misses is simply that we don’t know how the stats from the study you cited would look if the near misses were removed. Saying cell phone use accounts for 7.2% of accidents and near misses may be accurate (my quibble about accuracy to follow) but with near misses removed is the figure no 6.3% ? or is it 1.9% ? My guess is near misses greatly exceed actual accidents. By blending the two it may make cells seem much more dangerous than they really are.

    My further quibble with near misses is accuracy. Even with cameras in the car, someone must interpret whether or not there was a near miss. Is there an objective standard applied? If a car comes within so many feet of another is that the definition of “near collision” ? Are there other factors allowing for some interpretation?

    Even if we say, for the sake of discussion, that “near collisions” are objectively counted, the fact that they were near misses and not actual collisions suggests people re-directed their attention to their driving – just as they usually manage to do after applying makeup, fiddling with the CD changer, finding stations, fiddling with the iPod, resetting the clock on the radio for DST, searching the glovebox for a pen, shaving, and so on.

    Additionally, what about multiple causation? If someone is drunk and talking on the cell, which factor is the proximate cause of the accident? What is the contributory % assigned to each factor? Is this objective?

    States that ban the use of hand held cells should have seen a reduction in accidents but this isn’t what the accident stats show. Rather, there was no change in accident rates in those states, nor any real difference when comparing with nearby states that do not ban hand helds.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123084040

    I used to be on the side of banning cell phones while driving, but it’s obvious that the graph of accidents and the graph of cell phone use while driving (where not prohibited) are going in opposite directions. I think that’s all one really needs to know to realize this is just another form of distraction, not much different the list I mentioned above.

    When something else comes along – a new form of distraction to get excited about- then the cell will join the radio, the CD player, the plug in shaver, the makeup mirror, the iPod, etc. etc. as just another distraction device which few people worry about, and few people demand should be prohibited.

  • avatar
    dhathewa

    A friend in the State Police, who teaches driving for the SP, told me that the reason many SP applicants wash out of driving school isn’t because they can’t drive well but because they can’t handle driving and the non-driving workload.


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