When Driving and Multitasking Go Together

We all know not to text and drive. But is multitasking behind the wheel always a bad idea?

Recently, researchers from the Department of Psychology and Department of Artificial Intelligence at University of Groningen collaborated on an experiment looking at how different kinds of multitasking affected people’s driving performance in different situations.

To avoid unleashing an army of distracted drivers on the roads of Groningen, the researchers set up a simulated driving task. They then asked people to complete it across a range of different traffic conditions and multitasking activities.

Some of the results fit with what you might expect: using tablet computers while behind the wheel made people worse, more dangerous drivers.

On the other hand, some types of multitasking actually improved people’s driving performance. For example, listening to music on the radio made people safer drivers. Maybe even more surprisingly, answering questions on a radio quiz also improved people’s performance.

The fourth condition the researchers tested, driving without multitasking at all, was better than driving while using a tablet computer, but not quite as good as driving while listening to music or doing the radio quiz.

One possible explanation of these findings is that the tedium of driving without doing anything else can lower alertness, which in turn impairs driving performance.

In the words of the researchers, it may be that “drivers switch to internally focused secondary tasks when nothing else is available during monotonous or repetitive driving environments.” Ultimately, these “internally focused tasks” or “mind wandering” may be more distracting than things like listening to music or answering a radio quiz.

Because visual activities like texting or using a computer interfere with being able to keep your eyes on the road, it may be that auditory tasks like the ones in this study are the sweet spot for staying alert without becoming dangerously distracted.

Whatever the reason, it looks like we’re going to have to qualify the advice not to multitask while driving – the key may just be to multitask in the right way.

Image: Flickr/Michael Sale under CC BY-NC 2.0