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Driving and phones impair safety unless you're a 'supertasker'

Multi-tasking has its limits. A study by University of Utah psychologists found that people just can't talk on the cell phone and drive at the same time without safety problems---except for a few "supertaskers."
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

Multi-tasking has its limits. A study by University of Utah psychologists found that people just can't talk on the cell phone and drive at the same time without safety problems---except for a few "supertaskers."

The study by the University of Utah via CBS News found that 2.5 percent of the subjects tested were able to operate a driving simulator and talk on the phone without any impairment. The study was penned by University of Utah profs Jason M. Watson & David L. Strayer.

A snippet from the study's abstract:

Theory suggests that driving should be impaired for all motorists when they concurrently talk on a cell phone. But is everybody impaired by this dual-task combination? We tested 200 participants in a high-fidelity driving simulator in both single- and dual-task conditions. The dual-task involved driving while concurrently performing a demanding auditory version of the operation span (OSPAN) task. Whereas the vast majority of participants showed significant performance decrements in dualtask conditions (compared to single-task conditions for both driving and OSPAN tasks), 2.5% of the sample showed absolutely no performance decrements when comparing single- and dual-tasks. In single-task conditions, these “supertaskers” scored in the top quartile on all dependent measures associated with driving and OSPAN tasks, and Monte Carlo simulations indicated that the frequency of supertaskers was significantly greater than chance. These individual differences help to sharpen our theoretical understanding of attention and cognitive control in naturalistic settings.

These supertaskers actually showed improvement of their cognitive abilities.

What if you're not a supertasker? You have a few safety concerns. The University of Utah study showed:

  • 97.5 percent of subjects couldn't keep pace with traffic and talk on the phone;
  • That group of subjects hit the brakes 20 percent slower when talking;
  • Memorization fell 11 percent.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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