Many people are proud of their ability to multitask. Unfortunately, pride sometimes leads to overconfidence. Doing two tasks at once can be dangerous when one of those tasks — driving — demands full attention.
More than 1,100 people are injured in the United States every day as a result of distracted driving. More than 3,000 people are killed every year by distracted drivers. In all of those cases, victims and surviving family members are entitled to seek compensation from the distracted driver who caused the accident.
Courts and personal injury lawyers hold drivers accountable when cause accidents by talking on mobile phones when they should be paying attention to the road. California personal injury attorneys are seeing increasing numbers of accident victims who are ultimately victims of a driver’s mistaken belief in his or her ability to multitask.
The multitasking myth
According to the National Safety Council, multitasking is a myth. The brain is capable of handling many tasks at the same time, like breathing, walking, and talking, when they each involve a different part of the brain. When the same centers of the brain are required to perform two tasks simultaneously, the brain rapidly switches back and forth between the tasks. It does not perform them both at once.
When people talk about multitasking, they are usually talking about performing two cognitive tasks — two things that require them to think — at the same time. Brains cannot think two separate thoughts in the same instant. People can create the illusion of multitasking by concentrating on one task and then on another, but dividing the brain’s attention between two tasks causes it to shift its focus repeatedly.
Dividing attention is harmless enough when someone is watching television while talking on the telephone. When one task requires full concentration, however, interrupting that task by focusing the brain on something else necessarily causes a loss of concentration and impairs the ability to perform the first task correctly.
Cellphones and distracted driving
The parietal lobe is the part of the brain that is responsible for processing visual images. When drivers scan the road for traffic and pedestrians, the parietal lobe is central to the cognitive process that warns drivers of dangers or obstacles in their path.
Studies show that parietal lobe activity associated with visual images decreases by 37% when a driver is engaged in a conversation. While it is true that talking to a passenger produces the same result, the passenger at least provides an extra set of “eyes on the road,” partially offsetting the driver’s distraction.
Drivers who talk on cellphones, on the other hand, miss seeing as much as 50% of their driving environment, including traffic signals and pedestrians. That phenomenon, known as “inattention blindness,” explains why cellphone use is so often associated with traffic accidents.
A recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety examined the causes of crashes by teenage drivers. It concluded that driver distraction was a factor in 60% of traffic accidents involving teenagers that resulted in moderate-to-severe injury. Talking on a cellphone while driving was a distracting factor in 12% of traffic accidents involving teenage drivers.
According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, 80% of California traffic accidents involve driver inattention. Texting while driving is the most egregious example of driver distraction because no degree of imagined skill at multitasking allows a driver to look at the road and the cellphone at the same time. Due to inattention blindness, even talking on a cellphone is a distracting event that can lead to an accident.
Employer liability for cellphone use
California is one of many states that have adopted laws prohibiting distracted driving that focus on cellphone use. California law bans the use of hand-held cellphones but permits adult drivers to engage in hands-free cellphone conversations.
Although hands-free cellphone use is legal in California, cautious employers are adopting policies that limit or prohibit the use of cellphones by employees while driving. The existence of a policy does not automatically shield an employer from liability, because employers have an obligation to train their employees and to enforce their policies. A policy that employees are never told about, or that employees know is ignored by management, does nothing to protect the public from careless drivers.
Every California driver, rider, passenger, or pedestrian who is injured in a traffic accident should ask a personal injury lawyer whether they are entitled to compensation because of the driver’s distracted driving. If the driver who caused the accident was talking on a cellphone while engaged in work-related driving, the accident victim’s personal injury lawyer will also want to explore whether the driver’s employer should share the blame (and contribute to compensation) for injuries caused by the accident.