An exception to the rule?

Guest Bloggers

Guest Bloggers | Jan 20, 2010

By David Strayer

A few months back, I was a guest on a radio call-in show on one of the public radio stations in California. One caller really took me by surprise. He was calling from a hand-held cell phone while driving a semi-tractor trailer down Interstate 5! The caller informed me that he could shift with one hand, hold the phone with the other, and steer with his knee (how he operated the clutch and gas pedal, I do not know). He stated that he was an exceptional driver and had not been in an accident [yet]. I suggested that this was extremely unsafe and that he should hang up and pay more attention to the road.

While this example sounds extreme, there are plenty of people who think that they are the exception to the distracted driving rule -- they think that they can multitask without impairment (you might even think the same thing...). Sure, these drivers have seen others drive like they were drunk when they were on the cell phone, but not them. But, these drivers are just kidding themselves.

My lab has looked carefully for drivers who can talk on the cell phone while driving without impairment. There may be a few (less than 3%) who have extraordinary multitasking abilities like fighter pilots, but the vast majority of drivers are significantly impaired when they talk on a cell phone. You might think that you are a supertasker, but the odds are very much against this.

The illusion of being able to safely talk on a cell phone while driving is fostered in part by the fact that about 90% of drivers think that they are better than the average driver (the Lake Wobegon effect). Of course, this is statistically unlikely.

The illusion is also fostered by the fact that when drivers talk on a cell phone, they suffer from inattention blindness. Research shows that it takes attention to process the visual world. When attention is diverted to the cell phone conversation, drivers fail to see things right in front of their eyes. This includes failing to notice things that would let them know that they are an impaired driver (e.g., other drivers honking or gesturing at them, etc.).

So, you might want to reconsider if you think you are an exception to the distracted driving rule. The odds are against you.

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