Most of us think we're great at multitasking, and our teens think they're multitasking rock stars. After all, we talk or text on our cell phone while we shop, eat, dress, work out...and even drive. Yet, you might be surprised to learn that most of us are not very successful in performing multiple tasks simultaneously. Researchers have found that there are so-called "supertaskers," but they make up only 2.5 percent of people tested; the other 97.5 percent are really just kidding themselves. While you’re not likely to do anything worse than spill mustard on your shirt if you’re texting and eating, the result of texting and driving can be much more serious, even fatal.

The science behind distracted driving

There is more and more research on the subject of texting or talking while driving and the results help to explain why this is such a bad idea. Here's a summary of some of the studies on texting and driving that you can use with your teen to explain the science behind the facts about distracted driving and car accidents.

Eye-Tracking Data

This study from Ohio State University found that trying to do two visual tasks, such as driving and texting, hurt the performance in each task substantially more than doing a visual and audio task, such as driving and listening to music. Researchers used eye-tracking technology which showed that our gaze moves around much more often when we have two visual tasks compared to a visual and other type of task, and that we spend much less time fixing on any one task. The study also found that people are overconfident about their ability to multitask and don't understand that all simultaneous activities are not equally safe. Teens need to understand the difference between doing two visual tasks at the same time (texting and driving) versus a visual and non-visual task (texting and listening to music).

Looking But Not Seeing

According to Earl K. Miller, PhD, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, the problem with texting and driving is that we are relying on the brain's prediction that nothing was there on the road before, so it won't be there in the future. This is a deadly illusion that can have tragic consequences. "Because of our limited capacity for thought, we can only perceive a small fraction of the world at a time. We sip the outside world through a straw. But we have the illusion that the straw is large because your brain fills in the blanks. If you are focused on your cell phone, you may see an empty road just because it was empty a few seconds ago. The problem is, it might not be now," Miller explains. In other words, just because you look at something doesn't mean you actually see it as it really is.

Braking ‘Bad’

Why do studies on distracted driving show a significantly slower braking reaction time? One of the reasons is known as cognitive load or cognitive demand. Researcher Paul Atchley is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Kansas. He says that while most people think they are multitasking when they do two things at once, in actuality, they're not multitasking at all. Instead, he explains, people toggle back and forth between tasks, and in doing so, something has to give. Sometimes the thing that suffers is attention to sudden events on the road, like a car abruptly braking in front of you, or a vehicle turning out from a side street that you didn't even notice was there.

The fact of the matter is that driving accidents rarely occur due to unforeseeable events. Car crashes almost always are predictable and preventable, and that's especially true when there are distractions involved. Talk to your teen about why texting and driving doesn't work from a scientific standpoint, and consider innovative solutions that can completely disable your teen's mobile phone while driving. 

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