A Doctor's Message About Multitasking

Imagine a hospital operating room wired for phone use.  How would you feel if the surgeon removing your appendix talked on the phone — hands free, of course — while operating?

That’s the question posed in this week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Amy N. Ship, assistant professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical Center). Her article is titled The Most Primary of Care—Talking about Driving and Distraction.

The answer: No one would want a surgeon trying to multitask while performing an activity that is potentially life-threatening. And yet, we have somehow convinced ourselves that talking on a phone (hands-free, of course) while driving is simply good time management.

As Dr. Ship eloquently points out, that’s a fallacy. Her powerful argument against distracted driving includes the following truths, all backed up by research:

  • The crash risk of driving while talking on a cell phone is the same as the risk of crash associated with driving while drunk.
  • In the United States, at least one in four crashes is caused by someone talking or texting while driving.
  • Hands-free phones are not a safer alternative because the problem is distraction, not the hand on the steering wheel.
  • Neurologically, talking on the phone is qualitatively different from talking to a passenger–the phone takes more of your attention off the road.

Dr. Ship encourages physicians to start asking patients about their cell phone habits during examinations, the same way doctors already ask about other dangerous habits, including drinking alcohol, smoking, and taking drugs. When she has this conversation with her own patients, she sometimes runs into resistance to changing this ingrained habit. As she says in the article:

“I remind them that we all managed without mobile phones until recently and encourage them to return to the practices of the pre–cell­phone era. What can drivers do if they want to fill the resulting void? They can listen to the radio or a CD. They can pay attention to what they’re doing and their surroundings, rather than attempt to multitask. We talk about practical solutions. I tell them about a driver who killed a woman while talking on his phone but couldn’t restrain himself even after that horror. He now puts his phone in the trunk of his car before he gets behind the wheel. I talk about creating such a system for eliminating the risk.”   (NEJM p.2146)

She also provides a link to a powerful and disturbing British public service video (available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0LCmStIw9E). It should be required viewing for every driver, especially new ones.

You’ll notice that I used a deliberately misleading title for this blog. Many of us take pride in our ability to multitask because we think it makes us more productive, and we’re excited to read breakthroughs about it. But the car is one place where multitasking can backfire. And when it does, it backfires in a big way. A potentially life-altering way.

HensonFuerst represents people injured in car wrecks. If we never saw another mangled wreck caused by a distracted driver, we would be thrilled. We applaud Dr. Ship for her heartfelt plea for single-tasking… at least when it comes to driving.

(Read the full NEJM article here:  Talking about Driving and Distraction.)

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