Debunking the multitasking myth relating to driving

Published 6:01 am Sunday, April 17, 2016

QUESTION: What do I need to tell my teen driver about distracted driving?

RESPONSE: The first thing to tell a teen driver about distracted driving is that multi-tasking is a myth. Our brains do not “multi-task.” Our brains “task-switch.” They make fast-processing, linear choices on what to attend to. Everything else not in the first line of attention gets fuzzy. When on the phone or doing other tasks while driving, looking ahead is not enough to effectively anticipate and respond to prevent a crash. Engaging in visual-manual tasks, such as reaching for a cell phone, dialing, and texting, associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices triple the risk of getting into a crash.

Younger drivers are increasingly reliant on their phones to stay connected. Nationally, 78 percent of teens and young adults say they have read a text message while driving; 71 percent say they have composed/sent text messages while driving. Teen drivers, as compared with adults, divert their attention to secondary tasks for longer periods at a time, which is associated with a significant increase in crash risk.

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The second thing to explain to a teen driver is the “addictive” nature of cell phone use. Research demonstrates that our human dopamine “seeking system” propels us into action and is stronger than our separate “liking system” which makes us feel satisfied and pauses our seeking. Dopamine launches our seeking behavior — Facebook, Twitter, Internet searching and texting — resulting in nearly instant gratification of our strong desire to seek, which fuels a dopamine-induced addictive loop. We seek and get rewarded for seeking, which makes us seek more.

It becomes harder and harder to not respond to the trigger sound of an email or text coming in on our cell phone. It is important to turn off our cell phones when driving or to place cell phones out of reach to avoid the urge to answer, read or send messages.

To talk with a parenting specialist about the challenges in child-raising, call the toll-free Parent WarmLine at 1-888-584-2204/Línea de Apoyo at 1-877-434-9528. For free emergency child care call Crisis Nursery at 1-877-434-9599. Check out the resources at the PRC Specialty Library (105 First Street SE, Austin) and the website