22 November, 2019   By: Cristy Burne

Our cars have never been more advanced but driving them has never been more complicated. In-car distractions are increasingly pulling our attention away from the road, often with serious consequences. 

Your smartwatch is buzzing on your arm, your phone has just 'pinged' as a message comes through, you're adjusting your air conditioning and juggling your morning coffee - all as you're heading down the freeway at 100km/h.  

Increasingly we're taking on a lot of additional tasks while driving our cars. But despite what many of us would like to believe, our brain's ability to attend to multiple tasks at once is actually pretty limited. 

Research has repeatedly shown there's only so much we can focus on at any one time. That's why multitasking - that great, golden hope of the eternally busy - doesn't really cut it when it comes to driving. 

"Our ability to pay attention to information in the world is severely limited," says multitasking expert Professor Craig Speelman, professor of psychology at Edith Cowan University. "Our senses are sending information to our brain all the time, simultaneously. You really cannot pay attention to all of this information at the same time."

Image of person using smartwatch in car
Our brain's ability to multitask is quite limited

That's why multitasking only works with routine tasks - and tackling busy roads and avoiding potential incidents is never routine. 

If you're switching from one task to another, it's likely you won't end up doing either of them very well.

As human drivers, we can never automate the way we respond to what's happening on the word, says Speelman. "This part of the task is ever-changing, and although we can get better at it with practice, we can never do it without paying attention." 

Unfortunately, now more than ever, our busy lives mean attention is in limited supply.

The rise of in-vehicle distraction

Drivers increasingly share their attention with a growing number of wearable devices - think FitBits and smart watches - plus in-vehicle electronics like GPS devices, infotainment systems and multimedia applications. 

Texting while driving has been singled out as Public Enemy Number One, but smartphones aren't the only culprits in the battle to stay focused behind the wheel. 

Research shows you don't even need to be touching a device to be distracted. Even giving voice commands or having a hands-free conversation affects your ability to respond on the roads.

Image of voice assist on steering wheel
Research shows you don't even need to be touching a device to be distracted

In fact, you don't even need to have your device turned on for it to drain your concentration. "Even the phone being present, not even beeping or ringing, is enough to distract us," says Dr Sharon Horwood of Deakin University's School of Psychology. 

"You might be thinking, 'Maybe I'm missing something, maybe someone's called, maybe I need to respond...' Your phone starts to impact your ability to focus. Just having it in the car effectively becomes a secondary task and has an attentional cost."

Risky phone behaviour

Almost 90 per cent of Australians have smartphones and we are checking them, on average, 35 times a day or about every 24 minutes across a 14-hour day. 

Using a phone while driving increases the risk of a crash by up to four times.

We know it's risky behaviour, but nearly 60 per cent of us still do it. A 2018 study of Perth's Mitchell Freeway found two drivers every minute were using their phones.

There's something exciting in knowing your device has a special message, just for you, a natural response to the anticipated pleasure. It could be good news, bad news, any news...who knows? But each time your device pings, flashes or vibrates, something has arrived for your special attention. You and your brain have learned to expect a reward.

Tech companies design their apps with this in mind, says Horwood. "They try and tempt us, and deliberately so."

Their aim is to keep you engaged with their app (and their advertisers) for as long as possible, so they condition you in the same way Pavlov conditioned his drooling dogs. It's also the same way slot machines manipulate gamblers. And the same way psychologists get the most out of maze-running rats. The behaviour is driven by the reward that follows. 

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"The expectation of a reward is how many behavioural addictions begin," says Horwood. "If you're checking your phone every half hour, the expectation of receiving a reward every time is a pretty strong reinforcer."

On a neurological level, each time your brain receives a reward - anything from seeing a cute baby to laughing at a joke - it releases a dose of the feel-good chemical dopamine. 

Image of driver on their phone
Tech companies design apps so users will expect a reward

"A surge of dopamine makes you feel good and excited," says Horwood. "Dopamine can start to surge even when you just think about checking your phone. That can be a precursor to addictive behaviour."

But feeling good is a normal part of life, not an addiction. So, do you really have a problem?

"There isn't a problem if your smartphone isn't impacting your life in a negative way," says Horwood. "But if you're using your phone while driving, then that's a problem."

Younger drivers are most likely to use their devices while driving. "They're learning to drive, and they also have the greatest tendency to want to check their phone," says Horwood. "That's a perfect storm."

But we can't lay all the blame at the feet of our youth. Experienced drivers should be leading by example in front of their children, says Horwood. "If you're a driver and you're doing anything at all on your phone, that's modelling behaviours that are problematic."

Brain overload

The task of driving a vehicle within a complex road system - although a regular task - is also more taxing on your brain than you probably realise. 

"We get complacent about driving, but we shouldn't," says Anne Still, RAC's General Manager of Public Policy. 

"Driving has a really high cognitive load and even if we're alert and attentive, we can miss vital information because there's only so much our brains can process."

When you are distracted, it's easy not to notice that you haven't stayed in your lane, that you're going too fast or too slow, or to judge distances and gaps in traffic. It's also hard to notice what's going on around you and if something unexpected does happen, your reaction time will be slower.

"We need to be more aware that we're being pulled in lots of different directions all the time just through driving. If you add in distraction, it can have really terrible consequences," says Still. "There could be an irreparable outcome for such a small, inconsequential moment. If you're driving, just drive." 

Tips on cutting back

So, are you addicted to all those shiny digital devices when you drive?

"In any addiction, it often comes down to whether you're experiencing some kind of stress or negative consequences that stem from whatever behaviour you're engaging in," says Dr Horwood. 

Image of a phone with a push notification
If you're keen to break distracting behaviours, turn off push notifications on your phone

"We're seeing people with a lot of mood-related problems, feeling anxious if they haven't checked messages for a while. People are spending much longer on their phone than they intend to and reporting that it's causing them problems."

If you're keen to break the hold your device has on your behaviour, there are ways to help yourself cut back. Start by turning off push notifications on your phone. Change your settings so your device only notifies you of activity on important apps.

Another trick is to make the home screen on your phone less interesting. Remove the apps and icons you don't truly need or uninstall unnecessary apps altogether. You can also try turning your screen black-and-white. 

To help you focus only on the task of driving, prepare before you take off. Program your GPS before you leave. While you're at it, adjust your seats, mirrors, air conditioning and sound system too. If you need to change routes, pull over and reprogram. 

And if you're a serial phone offender, try turning off your phone or putting your device in the boot before you set off. 

You're four times more likely to crash if you use a mobile phone while driving.

We're calling on all WA drivers to make the choice to put away their phones and other devices and stay focused on the drive.

Turn on your phone's Do Not Disturb feature and keep your eyes on the road. 

Look up, WA