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Shut up and drive. April 24, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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In our adopted home state of Pennsylvania, it is now illegal to text and drive. But an attempt in the nearby cities of Allentown and Bethlehem to make it illegal to talk on a cellphone and drive was struck down because it wasn’t a statewide law. Now there’s finally hard science about why it should be, even for hands-free conversations.

Today’s Wall Street Journal featured a story called, improbably, “What Cocktail Parties Can Teach Us.” (Well worth reading in its entirety at www.wsj.com.) Our friend Ben was breezing past it when I saw the subtitle, “The Brain Is Wired to Focus on Just One Thing.” Having seen too many times the shoddy results of multitasking, I strongly agree with this, so of course I read the article to get their take on it. Check this out:

“Drivers talking on cellphones, for example, are four times as likely to get into traffic accidents as those who aren’t. Many of those accidents are due to ‘inattentional blindness’, in which people can, in effect, turn a blind eye to things they aren’t focusing on… ‘It’s a push-pull relationship—the more we focus on one thing, the less we can focus on others,’ says Diane M. Beck, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois…. All the sensory inputs vie to become the mind’s top priority. That’s the real danger of distracted driving, experts say. ‘You regularly hear people say so long as your hands are on the wheel and your eyes are on the road, you’re fine. But that’s not true,’ [University of Illinois professor of psychology] Mr. Simons says.” He should know, as we’ll see.

The article continues: “Studies over the past decade at the University of Utah show that drivers talking on hands-free cellphones are just as impaired as those on hands-held phones because it is the conversation, not the device, that is draining their attention. ‘Even though your eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cellphone, you are not as likely to see it,’ says David Strayer, a psychology professor and lead researcher.”

If you don’t, uh, “see” how that could possibly be true, let’s get back to Professor Simons, who conducted a now-famous study at Harvard in the 1990s called the “Invisible Gorilla Experiment.” People were shown a short video of kids playing basketball and asked to count how many times the ball was passed by the team wearing white. During the course of the clip, a man in a gorilla suit walks across the court. Subsequent questioning revealed that half the people watching the video failed to see the ‘gorilla’, even though it was in plain sight, because they were concentrating on counting the passes.

This isn’t just about cellphones or texting, either. Our friend Ben enjoyed listening to interactive language CDs while driving, since it seemed like a great use of commuting time. But I had to stop after I realized that trying to recall Spanish and Japanese phrases was interfering with my driving, even though my eyes were definitely on the road and both hands were on the wheel. (Now I listen at home, which is pretty humiliating, since Silence Dogood can hear my frantic attempts at recall and correct pronunciation, and as you can imagine, is not at all shy about imitating them.)

And what about everything else? Our friend Rob listens to his beloved Penn State football games if they come on while he’s driving. We have many friends who listen to “talk radio” while driving, including everything from calamity-filled news broadcasts to intense and thought-provoking programs on NPR to the vicious invective of professional hate-mongers. Other friends are addicted to audiobooks during their commutes.

What about tense conversations with fellow passengers, screaming and/or fighting kids in the back seat, the innumerable people who try to eat and/or drink coffee while they’re driving (and often while also talking on the cellphone), or people like our neighbors whose dogs run around in the car? Our friend Ben develops a lead foot every time I’m listening and singing along to a fast-paced song, be it Mark Knopfler’s “Speedway at Nazareth” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and I have to make a conscious effort to slow down.

Our society prizes multitasking (even though studies show that only 2.5% of the population can actually succeed at it) and puts enormous pressure on everyone to scatter their focus like seed sown in a garden. No amount of studies, Wall Street Journal articles, or shoddy results are likely to change that. But we could at least focus our multitasking efforts where they’re less likely to harm us and our fellow beings. Please, let’s shut up and drive.



1. deb - April 27, 2012

Great post. I left a present for Our Friend Ben on Aunt Debbi’s Garden

Thanks, Deb! I’ll be right over. I hope it’s not—gulp—socks…

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