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Can you multitask safely behind the wheel? Study says think again

In previous posts, we have written many times about the growing problem of distracted driving, both here in Chicago and around the nation. Despite the widespread public knowledge that texting and other distracted driving behaviors significantly increase the chances of a car accident, a growing number of Americans are giving into distractions behind the wheel.

If you are among those who text while driving or talk on your cellphone while driving, ask yourself why you do it. Is it because you are good at multitasking and can safely pay attention to multiple things at once? If this is your self assessment, a new study has revealed that it's probably wrong. In fact, researchers found that drivers who are most likely to multitask are usually the least qualified to do so.

Two psychology professors recently tested 310 college students on a range of factors, including ability to multitask, perceived ability to multitask and behavioral traits. Going into the study, 70 percent of participants reported that they were "above average at multitasking; a figure which the study's author's note is statistically impossible.

The test results were enlightening. It turns out that the best multitaskers were people who could consistently focus on the task at hand. Ironically, this makes them less likely to engage in multitasking (such as distracted driving).

Conversely, people who were most likely to multitask exhibited high levels of sensation-seeking and impulsivity. Their inability to maintain focus on a single task makes them bad at multitasking yet more likely to do it.

As studies like this show, perception can be far from reality, especially self perception. Therefore, thinking that you can safely drive distracted could be a dangerous assumption.

Source: EHS Today, "Multitasking and Distracted Driving: You Are Not the Exception," Laura Walter, Jan. 25, 2013

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