On Wednesday, the Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, called the broader phenomenon of distracted driving a “deadly epidemic” at a meeting on the issue in Washington. Real estate brokers, pharmaceutical sales people, entrepreneurs, marketers and others say they have little choice but to transform their cars into cubicles. In this merciless economy, they say, they have to make every minute count, and respond instantly to opportunities and challenges.
And they argue that the convenience of constant contact — and the chance to tick off items from an endless to-do list while driving — far outweigh what they think are slim chances that it could lead to a wreck.
The NY Times has been running a series on the perils of multi-tasking while driving. Today's installment highlights how work pressures, often self-imposed in the case of knowledge workers, are causing people to kill themselves as well as innocent bystanders through stupid mistakes made while trying to be on the telephone, send email, and drive all at the same time (or similar combinations of ICT activities).
It may be that in our culture, this pattern of behavior is Darwinian natural selection at work, though the loss of innocent bystanders doesn't quite fit the pattern. It does represent a continuation of the obliviousness we feel with respect to the dangers of multitasking. In addition to this kind of life-threatening danger, there are less obvious but more pervasive effects. In a paper published earlier this year in PNAS Early Edition, "Cognitive control in media multitaskers", Ophir and colleagues described a controlled behavioral trial in which they showed that media multitasking degrades personal productivity and effectiveness:
A trait media multitasking index was developed to identify groups of heavy and light media multitaskers. These two groups were then compared along established cognitive control dimensions. Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.
In all likelihood, many of us in the knowledge business will be as oblivious to this evidence as we have been to the numerous past studies of the dangers of using cell phones while driving. Sad, but true, I fear.