You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Texting and Tasking to Death

Our culture has a relentless moving quality to it. There is nonstop pressure to be more productive, to seek out entertainment, to talk to other people, to see more things before you die. I don’t know where we stand currently, but in the recent past, Americans were at the top of national rankings for the productivity of the average worker, and we were taking less vacation than workers in most other modern countries. We have come to believe that we can multi-task just fine, and that it is essential to keep up the pace of the life we’ve made for ourselves. All of this frenetic kinetics is enabled by stimulant drugs such as caffeine, and many other illicit ones.

This brings us to the fairly recent phenomenon of texting while driving (TWD). It is stunning how quickly this activity has captured the attention of the public in a way most things never will. The typical texting driver is a teenager, mainly because a disproportionate segment of all texting is done by teens. However, increasingly, TWD is done by male and female adults, including professionals like truck drivers, and even an increasing prevalence of senior citizens. The immediate safety issue is TWD but the broader issue is multi-tasking in all sorts of circumstances.

There is a raft of new state laws trying to prohibit or restrict TWD. They vary in what aspects of this behavior they regulate. They also vary in whether the restriction targets all drivers or just youth, and whether the police can stop a driver primarily for TWD or whether there has to be another primary reason providing a rationale for a traffic stop. As of yet, the evidence for effectiveness is small, so any of these public policies are truly just experiments. Over time, the body of evidence will grow, and this will guide legislators to craft restrictions most likely to improve safety. However, there is lots of evidence to support the idea that TWD causes accidents.

So here is a quiz question. What exactly is it about TWD that is dangerous? Is it A) hands off the controls? B) eyes off the road? or C) mind off the task of driving? The answer is important, because if A or B were the reasons, there would be technological solutions to make TWD safer. The best answer is C, a mind divided between driving and communicating with another person is not safe. The bad news is that this is just as true for phone conversations while driving, even with a Bluetooth device. It turns out that we are not as good at multi-tasking as we think. Students think they can study while watching their favorite TV show, because they multi-task well. Parents think they can fix supper, help Janie with her homework, and talk on the phone all at the same time. We have convinced ourselves that we can do these things, that we are good at more than one thing at a time, and that life requires this frantic activity.

TWD research teaches that we need to slow down: on the highway, in the hyperactive need for instant communications, and in the pace of life in general. Perhaps TWD is a metaphor that might help us find more quality and quantity of life.

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