Monday, October 17, 2011

Driver distraction–one more attempt

The prototypical multitasking topic (apart from gender) is driver distraction. This morning the Dutch police and traffic safety organization launched a new campaign to warn drivers against multitasking while driving. Their motto is "Een beetje chauffeur laat zich niet afleiden" (which means something like: "If you are a cool driver you don't let yourself be distracted"). One of the goals is to try to convince people that even though they might think they are better at multitasking than others, they probably aren't.
Although I hope they have some success with the campaign, I am not very optimistic.

Problem 1: Multitasking is not just eyes
Even though using a cell phone while driving is illegal in the Netherlands, calling hands-free isn't. This is also what the campaign focusses on: your eyes have to be on the road. However, research has shown that driving with a hands-free set is as distracting as with a normal phone. This should not surprise us too much: making the call itself (i.e., dialing) is a much shorter task than having a phone conversation. But it shows that even though the driver may look at the road and have his hands on the wheel, he or she can still be distracted due to conflicting demands on working memory ("You want me to buy apple sauce? Ehrr.., but now I forgot what the maximum speed was...") The focus on the idea that is the eyes and hands that are responsible for multitasking trouble is particularly worrisome, because more and more technology tries to alleviate that aspect of multitasking–while ignoring the others. In particular, I have seen several mentions of the new iPhone 4S's Siri feature (you can talk to your phone and it talks back) as the perfect way to use it while driving.

Problem 2: People can multitask, so don't pretend they can't
What is the mantra of people that try to teach us to better our lives? People cannot multitask, they are built to only carry out one task at a time (David Peebles sent me this link in which some talking head is reiterating this as if it were truth). If that were true there wouldn't be a problem! But on the contrary, people can multitask quite well in certain situations, but not in others. My first post on "het nieuwe pinnen" shows an example of how a small modification in situation can change good multitasking into bad multitasking. And that's the trouble with traffic: there are many situations that allow for multitasking, but that can change rapidly into situations in which multitasking suddenly becomes very dangerous. The cognitive demands of driving vary widely in time, making reliable multitasking impossible. But because of the frequent low-demand periods, the temptation to multitask remains (along with the mistaken conviction that there is no harm in it).

I am not sure what the right way is to prevent people from multitasking in the car, but if we focus on the wrong issues we will definitely not crack the problem.


  1. Hi Niels,

    Just a question on this kind of multitasking. How do we prioritise? I mean, when a situation which requires low attention levels (e.g. driving down a desolate stretch of motorway) suddenly develops into a situation which requires our full attention? Do some people cut off the call they were making? Do others just drive badly? Do people have different strategies to make it work?

  2. Martin,
    How we prioritize multitasking is one of the hard questions in human multitasking (and, interesting enough, in computer science multitasking ask well). Dario Salvucci and I believe that there is no central prioritizer, and that our task knowledge is responsible for priorities. This means that we have to make a conscious decision to cut off a call if the traffic becomes to heavy, but this is a decision that people can make mistakes in.
    Interestingly enough, people tend to make the right decisions in most cases, and this is why despite the number of deaths in traffic still 99.9% of the decisions drivers make don't lead to accidents (which is pretty amazing if you think about it). It is just the final 0.1% or less that we try to reduce.