One task too many

Chewing gum and walking at the same time may be fairly easy for most of us, but as I wrote more than a year ago in this column, having a hands-free conversation over a cellphone does not mean that your brain is also free.

          Chewing gum and walking at the same time may be fairly easy for most of us, but as I wrote more than a year ago in this column, having a hands-free conversation over a cellphone does not mean that your brain is also free.

          I pointed out that there is still a level of distraction when talking and driving at the same time.

          Now it appears that a team of scientists has tested this very idea in the laboratory. I interviewed the research team leader, Dr Marcel Just, who is co-director for the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging in the psychology department at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.

          His conclusion?

          When the brain is asked to divide its time between two high-level tasks, it gives each task less attention than if it had to do the tasks one at a time, according to Just. "It must be made clear that demanding driving can't be safely time-shared with other tasks," Just said.

          Less attention translates into lower performance levels. When volunteers in the study were asked to simultaneously answer true-false questions while judging the similarity between three-dimensional objects, both their reaction times and error levels went up.

          Here's what troubles me. With every automaker equipping its cars with hands-free -- but not brain-free, remember -- in-vehicle services including voice cell phone service, voice-activated reading and creating of emails, and heavens knows what else, our nation's roadways are going to become ever more dangerous. I find this ironic because most of these services started by touting their safety features.

          If any of my readers work for an insurance company, I would like to suggest that your company offer a car insurance discount similar to one that is given to nonsmokers in life insurance policies. For those of us who promise not to use a cellphone service -- or any other service -- while driving, unless in case of emergency, a discount is in order.

          Of course, the insurance companies might turn around and do the opposite to deter unsafe driving habits. Can you imagine paying a higher premium when you buy a car with, say, OnStar's Deluxe program -- which includes most of the above services? It is possible.

          The insurance industry vs the auto industry; now there's a battle of the titans.

          Schwartz is an editor at large in InfoWorld's news department. You are encouraged to weigh in on this debate; send your opinions to Ephraim Schwartz.

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