Distracted Driving is Basically Multitasking – but Worse

November 12, 2018

It’s easy to get behind the wheel and seemingly arrive at your destination without feeling like any time has passed. Once you’ve driven a route frequently, it almost becomes automatic.

The repetition creates and strengthens synaptic connections, called brain plasticity. However, when putting conscious effort into several tasks behind the wheel, like texting and driving, the brain is significantly strained. The more strain put on the brain, the less it’s able to do effectively.

The illusion of multitasking
Technically, humans can only have one conscious experience at a time. However, the brain can run several automatic processes simultaneously — such as eating, walking and talking. The brain is rapidly switching between tasks in this type of scenario. The brain is so powerful that it can switch focus in just a tenth of a second.

This is what gives the illusion of multitasking. The nearly seamless transition between tasks falsely boosts the confidence of multitasking abilities.

Once the brain learns an action, it assigns it to the subcortical networks — making it automatic. The subcortical part of the brain controls complex motor and non-motor functions, which makes it ideal for mechanical and repetitive tasks.

How this affects driving behavior
In short, if a driver is concentrating on something other than the road, there are less brain resources available to drive safely. Using a cellphone or other handheld device can have a negative impact on attentiveness, learning abilities and overall mindfulness — which, in turn, can cause a distracted driving accident. Keep in mind that the odds of an accident are just as high, regardless of the distraction. Changing the radio station, using Bluetooth to call a friend, or following GPS are still risky behaviors.

Why people multitask
Seeing a notification, such as a text message, triggers dopamine in the brain’s reward center. The expectation of another reward, like a reply message, creates even higher levels of dopamine. These signals from the reward center are hard to resist. This is why it’s so hard to resist using a cellphone while driving — even if under other circumstances, you promised not to.

A component of hand-eye coordination
A University of Houston study discovered that hand-eye coordination explains the brain’s inability to multitask, using something called the sixth sense. The sixth sense allows the brain to hyper-focus and is utilized when someone is driving in an emotional or absent-minded state.

In this study, subjects were tested using a high fidelity driving simulator. When participants were using their sixth sense, they actually drove safer than when driving normally. However, when they were asked to text while driving, they crossed lanes.

The study found that a certain part of the brain takes over when drivers are generally distracted, but are still using hand-eye coordination to drive. When a driver’s attention is diverted to a cellphone screen, the link is broken and the brain can’t function properly.

How to avoid distracted driving
Understanding the science behind distracted driving is only the first step in preventing it. Here are a few tips to consider —

For additional distracted driving information or prevention training, check out our other resources.