Increased demands on time in today’s busy life have resulted in people juggling multiple tasks at the same time. But it is not always beneficial and can create problems. For instance, in case of driving, this has resulted in a new traffic hazard that demands immediate attention — distracted driving.

In South Africa, a young woman ran a red traffic light while talking on her cell phone and slammed into the vehicle crossing directly in front of her at the intersection. Police investigations found that the 20-year-old driver never touched her brakes and was travelling at the speed of 77 km/h when she hit the other vehicle. The crash resulted in the death of a 12-year-old boy.

The driver was not looking down, dialling on the phone or texting, but was looking straight ahead, talking on her cell phone as she hit the vehicle. Investigators termed this crash as a case of inattention blindness (distracted driving) caused by the cognitive distraction of a cell phone conversation.

Distracted driving is not limited to the use of hand-held or hands-free cell-phones. It is a diversion of the driver’s attention while driving and can result both from distractions inside the vehicle (e.g. cell-phone use, eating, drinking, smoking, talking to passengers, adjusting the radio/GPS, etc.), as well as outside the vehicle (e.g. looking at billboards, admiring surroundings, etc.). Distraction causes diversion of attention as the driver is focussing on an event that is unrelated to driving.

The major problem with using a mobile phone while driving is the lack of capacity of the human brain to react to the driving scenario, assimilate information and decide on appropriate action, while concentrating on something else. Research indicates that drivers using cell-phones look at, but fail to notice, up to 50 per cent of the information in their driving environment, as their brains are concentrating elsewhere. Research has also shown that writing or reading a text message takes a person’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. At the speed of 90 km/h, that’s like driving the length of a football field blindfolded.

Another research has shown that if a person is texting while driving, he or she is 20 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a non-distracted driver.

A study conducted by the University of Utah investigated the performance of a cell-phone driver and a drunk driver under controlled laboratory settings and found that the impairments associated with both were equally profound. Another remarkable finding of the study was that whether the driver was speaking on a hands-free or holding the phone, the end result was the same.

On May 19, 2010, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a directive to more than 40,000 United Nations staff, barring employees from texting behind the wheel while driving UN-owned vehicles. Similarly, President Obama signed an Executive Order prohibiting nearly four million US government employees from texting while operating government-owned cell-phones, vehicles or while on official business. Over 32 countries, including France, Japan, and the United Kingdom, have passed laws that restrict drivers’ use of handheld devices. Portugal has outlawed all phone use, hand-held or hands-free, in the driver’s seat.

In the US, 35 states and the District of Columbia and Guam ban text messaging for all drivers. In addition, nine states and the District of Columbia prohibit hand-held cell-phone use by all drivers. On May 10, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution — Improving Global Road Safety — on distracted driving.

The human brain has limitations while processing information. The fact that people can rapidly switch their attention back and forth across tasks leads many of them to believe that they can multitask. The reality is that they can’t, and by trying to do so neither task receives optimal attention or focus. Experienced Karachi drivers quite often say that their driving is reflexive, so they can attend to other tasks. They can’t be more wrong.

A study conducted at an American University in 2008 examined the MRI pictures of the brain while subjects drove on a simulator and listened to spoken statements. Participants had to determine if these statements were true or false. The results showed that activity in the brain’s parietal lobe (an area associated with navigation and spatial processing) decreased by 37 per cent and activity in the occipital lobe (associated with processing visual information) also decreased. So, as drivers focus on secondary tasks unrelated to driving they begin to suffer from “inattention blindness”, particularly as secondary tasks become more complex.

I believe there should be a complete ban on using cell-phone (hand-held and hands-free) and texting while driving and riding motor bikes, and anyone caught doing so should be fined heavily. At the same time a word to all drivers: next time when it seems that multi-tasking in the car is an appropriate decision, remember the unfortunate death of the 12-year old boy. A text or a call is not worth anyone’s life.

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