Standing Up For You

Context switching and why it is dangerous for drivers

Drivers can find it easy to trick themselves into thinking they can focus on multiple tasks while still safely operating a motor vehicle. They are used to working in front of a computer, holding a conversation and watching the television all at the same time so how can these skills not transfer over to safe driving? Unfortunately, psychological research finds that there is no such thing as true multi-tasking and individuals simply switch attention from one task to the other, albeit quickly, which can lead to devastating vehicle collisions.

Devoting focus to multiple activities is generally characterized in one of three forms:

  • Multitasking: When an individual is truly attempting to perform two tasks at once. The anecdotal examples of “rubbing your belly while patting your head” or “walking and chewing gum” are purely physical forms of this. Reading a text passage while verbally conversing and retaining comprehension of both would be an example including the component of concentration.
  • Context switching: When an individual is performing one task and then quickly switches focus to another task before switching back. This can happen quickly, but the individual will lose attention for several seconds at a time.
  • Attention residue: When an individual performs a list of activities in rapid succession. He or she might feel accomplished, but factors such as goal shifting and role activation can impede concentration and the completion of all tasks might ultimately be sub-par.

Drivers must be aware of these tactics and their inherent dangers. They might truly believe that a phone conversation while driving is a harmless activity that effectively uses their time behind the wheel. Unfortunately, focusing on the conversation will pull focus from the act of safe driving. It is impossible to effectively perform both tasks at the same time.

Drivers are encouraged to follow the method of single-tasking to safely complete their activities. When behind the wheel, only focus on driving. The conversation, eating breakfast or personal grooming can wait until the destination has been reached.