How the Human Brain Handles Multitasking and Why It Matters While Driving
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How the Human Brain Handles Multitasking and Why It Matters While Driving

Friday, May 05, 2017By Richard Alexander

Multitasking is considered by some to be a virtue in today’s fast paced and connected society. Indeed, the common use of electronic devices to communicate with one another encourages multitasking by making communication possible at just about any moment in a person’s daily routine. That is a pretty awesome tool compared to how things used to be. Not too very long ago, communication between people was in person, by United States mail, or over a telephone that was connected by wire to one’s home. In those days, multitasking was not that much of an option for people.

Just what is multitasking? Let’s start with what it is not. Contrary to the term itself, multitasking is not doing two things at the same time. The human brain is not capable of doing that. The brain deals with things sequentially, one after another. Multitasking comes in when the brain switches back and forth between different tasks. It can do so quickly enough that it may seem things are being done at the same time.

While multitasking may enjoy a generally positive reputation, it can be a deadly practice when one of the tasks is driving. And the most common other task that people pair with their driving is mobile phone use. This leads to deadly automobile accidents, often at the expense of a person who was not multitasking while driving.

Driving and even just talking on the phone with a hands free device are tasks that require significant brain power. To perform a task, the brain must receive information through one of the senses, encode that information, store it, retrieve it, and then act on the information. When a person is receiving information related to both the driving task and the phone conversation task at the same time, there are interruptions in the brain’s processes. At best, this might result in a lapse in the phone conversation. At worst, there can be a lapse in what the driver sees and perceives on the roadway.

Consider the case of a 20 year-old driver in Michigan who ran a red light while talking on the phone. She passed at least three other cars stopped at the light in the adjacent lane, then struck not the first car to enter the intersection, but the third or fourth car! That’s how long the light had been red. She never applied her brakes. A 12 year-old boy was killed.

In that situation, the driver’s brain failed to see what was going on in front of the car, and was instead processing information received in the phone conversation. According to a National Safety Council report, drivers using cell phones fail to see as much as 50 percent of what is in their field of vision. As in the Michigan accident, that can result in tragedy.

Distracted driving incidents are all too common. If you or a family member has been severely injured or killed in an incident with a distracted driver, contact the Alexander Law Group, LLP at 888-777-1776. Initial consultations are free and confidential.

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