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.
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.