Some people CAN text and drive safely

Mar 30, 2010, 2:56 PM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

A rare percentage of people can text or make a phone call safely while driving. They’re called “supertaskers.”

This study from the University of Utah caught my interest because I just spent time talking with a mom who is coping with the death of her son who was using a cell phone just before his fatal car accident.

The researchers discovered there is a small subset of the population who have no difficulty multitasking in a car.

It’s a very small subset. Only 2.5 percent of the U.S. adult population has this supertasker capability.

That means 97.5 percent of the population is can’t drive safely while texting, putting on makeup, eating, chatting on a phone, reading a book, or whatever else distracts us behind the wheel.

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Jason Watson, a University of Utah psychologist, negotiates cybertraffic in a driving simulator used to study driver distractions such as cell phones and texting. While many people think they can safely drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, Watson’s new study shows only one in 40 is a “supertasker” who can perform both tasks at once without impairment of abilities measured in the study. Photo Credit: Valoree Dowell, The University of Utah

A few more details about the study from a news release:

The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas-braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.

As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.

For those who were not supertaskers and who talked on a cell phone while driving the simulators, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with simulated traffic while driving. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell 3 percent.

However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved 3 percent.

The results are in line with Strayer’s prior studies showing that driving performance routinely declines under “dual-task conditions” – namely talking on a cell phone while driving – and is comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.

“There is clearly something special about the supertaskers,” says Strayer. “Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned.”

Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to have extraordinary multitasking ability.

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Some people CAN text and drive safely