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So what tasks can you do while driving and which are unsafe? If calling is out, what about carrying on a conversation with someone in the car?

Kevin Kelly recently blogged about multiplexing, as opposed to multitasking, though I'm not sure if this is a bogus distinction. He writes of being totally engaged in audiobooks while driving, without ever having had an accident. But is it a biological fact that he's wrong to be so confident. Should car radios and CD players be banned?

I'm not saying there's no cause for concern here, but it seems like it's another of those insidious "a line has to be drawn somewhere, but where?" arguments. I'm sceptical about "biological fact" claims unless backed up by multiple sources that show a sophisticated understanding of attention that goes beyond just a unitary, zero-sum resource.

Kluth's Economist piece - http://www.economist.com/node/18561075 - says more than his blog post and includes this:

"The human brain has to work harder to process language and communication with somebody who is not physically present. (Conversation with passengers is much less distracting, apparently because those passengers are also aware of the traffic situation and moderate their conversation.) A study by Carnegie Mellon University using brain imaging found that merely listening to somebody speak on the phone led to a 37% decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, where spatial tasks are processed. This suggests that hands-free use of mobile phones cannot help much. Such distractions, according to one study, make drivers more collision-prone than having a blood-alcohol level of .08%, the legal limit in America. It appears to raise the risk of an accident by four times. Texting multiplies the risk by several times again."

And at the foot of Andreas Kluth's post there are about a dozen links to studies relating the issue, and this link to research on the official US Government website for distracted driving.

I wrote to Andreas about it who replied said "Especially good are the World Health Organization report (which also summarizes all other research) and the Carnegie Mellon study".

Alongside the WHO study there is also a nine-page list of references.

I'm actually quite intrigued by the "multiplexing/multitasking" distinction.

If I do two or more tasks simultaneously, and I do them all for the same reason, my brain is likely to coordinate them. Example: I run AND hold a spear AND wind up while running AND THROW.... I am a hunter.

The driver in a car, talking with a passenger, may also be multiplexing. Both are looking out the window and see the traffic. The passenger may even see more. A ball rolls onto the street, and the passenger adjusts his conversation. He pauses, he raises an arm, the driver picks up on it, slows his speed...

The various activities reinforce one another. This might be multiplexing.

But a driver talking on the phone or texting is always multitasking. He brain is drawn to some other place, so it is no longer where it is needed.

And the pilot discussing landing conditions at some distant airport with air traffic control is also multitasking...

The WHO references are mostly reviews and meta-analyses themselves, so it's difficult to tell what methodologies they've used. There are a couple that refer to a "100-Car Naturalistic driving study" and that's the kind of evidence that would be useful. I'd imagine it ought to be possible, without too much investment, to rig some fairly rigorous driving simulations where you study different kinds of distraction under experimental conditions. (You can bet they do this kind of thing with pilots' flight simulations, because the regulations are a different order.)

I would give much more credibility to studies of actual distraction in a realistic context than to brain imaging reports, from which the degree of distraction has to be inferred (by means that are not widely understood or agreed). Mini rant here: in some quarters brain imaging and neuroscience have acquired the status of voodoo. People who don't begin to understand the basis or methodologies of these studies give them the kind of credence normally reserved for Moses' tablets of stone (it was Moses, wasn't it?). Just because some scientist (read: witchdoctor) has taken assigned significance to some parts of an image of a brain (read: stuck pins in a doll representing someone), the world will now shift on its axis. The differences is that most neuroscientists are actually much more humble and cautious about the significance of their work than the people who recruit this work for their own ends. Rant over.

I haven't read the WHO report in detail, but two figures jumped out at me. "In Great Britain, distraction was cited as a contributory factor in 2% of reported crashes". Mobile phones are mentioned in 2 of the 10 "main internal sources of driver distraction" - others including adjusting temperature controls, radio etc.

To be clear, NONE of this is to dismiss or belittle the importance of distraction while driving or operating any other kind of potentially lethal machinery. I'm quite prepared to accept that evidence of mobile phones being implicated in dangerous driving may exist (just let's try some other more direct methods than brain imaging).

If I seem to be playing devil's advocate here, it's because I'm wary of some on the Keen-Carr "modern life is rubbish" axis who, knowingly or unknowingly, make misleading claims based on evidence that doesn't robustly support the arguments they say it does.

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