Research shows that people consistently overestimate how good they are at multitasking.
Earlier this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that 91 "texting zones" have been established along major state highways. Cuomo's hope is that the zones will cut down on distracted driving by giving people a place to pull over and finish an exchange. Nearly 300 signs will guide drivers to these areas with messages like "It Can Wait: Text Stop 5 Miles."
There's little to dislike with the initiative. Distracted driving is an enormous public safety hazard that will only become more enormous as the texting generation gets behind the wheel. The campaign was also relatively low cost, since the texting zones are simply re-branded rest stops (as Andrew Liszewski at Gizmodo points out). This is a marketing scheme, not an infrastructure project.
But there is one foreseeable problem with texting zones, and it's a big one: the people who need them the most will use them the least.
That unfortunate truth was illustrated nicely in an experiment published earlier this year in the open journal PLoS ONE. A team of research psychologists at the University of Utah (which included leading distracted driving expert David Strayer) asked people to estimate how often they used a cell phone while driving, and to rate how competent they were at multitasking in general. The average age of the study participants was 21 — presumably experienced texters.
After the preliminary questionnaires, Strayer and company gave the study participants a test called the Operation Span Task. This task measures how well a person can remember a series of letters interspersed with a dozen or so math problems that must also be answered. It's a great proxy for a person's ability to multitask; here's a sample problem:
For example, in one sequence, participants were presented with "is (3/1) − 1 = 2?" followed by "f" followed by "is (2 * 2) +1 = 4?" followed by "k" followed by a recall probe. Participants should have answered "true" and "false" to the math problems when they were presented and recalled "f" and "k" in the order that they were presented when probed.
When the researchers combined the questionnaires with the test results they reached three conclusions — none of which bodes well for texting zones (or distracted driving in general).
The first finding was that most people thought they were better multitaskers than average. (One of the most common findings in psychology is that no one thinks they're common.) But the people who judged themselves exceptional at multitasking didn't perform exceptionally on the Operation Span Task.
The second finding was even worse: people who reported using their cell phone in the car most often also did poorly on the multitasking test. The third finding was worse yet: people who reported using their cell phone in the car most, despite doing poorly on the multitasking test, judged themselves to be above-average multitaskers. Strayer and company summarize it best:
The persons who are most likely to multi-task and most apt to use a cell phone while driving are those with the most inflated views of their abilities.
A few quick disclaimers before you're too scared ever to drive again. This was a lab test that didn't involve actual (or even simulated) driving. Who knows, maybe people who are bad at math and memory are oddly good at texting and driving. Most critically, even if you are good at multitasking, you shouldn't text and drive, for the same reason that being good at holding your liquor doesn't mean you should get behind the wheel when you drink.
But even with those caveats the results are pretty discouraging. Translated to the real world, they suggest that the very people who should pull off to text are the ones who will read the "It Can Wait" signs and think they're meant for someone else.