Walking and Chewing Gum

By Randy K. Logsdon

Congress had just passed the bill that funded the government (ending the partial government shut-down at least temporarily) and raising the debt limit again. A television reporter interviewed a congressman and the conversation went something like this:

Reporter: “Aren’t you concerned that the debt ceiling and continuing resolution funding the government comes due again in just a few months?”

Congressman: “No, we have plenty of time now to work out the issues and pass a bill that both sides can live with.”

Reporter: “But the president and you folks in Congress have other issues on the table – namely immigration reform, ObamaCare implementation, and automatic budget cuts that will hit the Defense Department hard.”

Congressman: “Well, you realize that we can walk and chew gum at the same time!”

Perhaps because that phrase is so overused, the congressman’s last statement just grabbed my attention. In a moment of all too characteristic sarcasm, I reacted with a comment of my own. “Yeah, but you can’t drive and text at the same time!”

After calming down, I was still troubled by the question. Why is it that most of us can multitask in some situations and not in others? The fact is most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time.

In fact, we can probably walk, chew gum, and dribble a basketball at the same time. Conversely, we’ve been told that texting and talking (even hands-free) while driving is dangerous. The answer is pretty simple: We can multitask what we don’t have to think about.

Walking, chewing gum, and (for some) dribbling a basketball are unconscious actions. Research indicates that we cannot accomplish two or more cognitive tasks (tasks that required thought and mental focus) simultaneously.

In the 2012 National Safety Council White Paper “Understanding the Distracted Brain – Why Driving While Using Hands-Free Cell Phones is Risky Behavior,” a stunning case is made (and well documented) for the risks of performing other cognitive tasks while driving. A similar case can be made for any two tasks that require intentional thought, focus, problem solving or decision making – not just driving and using a cell phone.

So, one may ask, how have I survived? I’ve been using my cell phone while I drive for years and I’ve never wrecked my car. The answer might just be that you’ve been lucky.

There is a phenomenon known as “attention switching.” This can occur rapidly and frequently giving the illusion of multitasking. The problem is that even though the process of switching is measured in tenths of a second, that switching time adds to your reaction time.

That can be very meaningful at high speeds or when a child suddenly crosses your path. While focused on that conversation, the mental aspects of your driving no longer function. You operate on automatic. And that works, provided nothing unexpected or unusual happens.

Focus on the “disembodied voice” while driving (or performing other cognitive tasks) even for short periods can distract not only your attention, but your senses as well. Have you ever suddenly realized that you don’t remember the last five miles?

Have you ever missed your exit, failed to see a traffic light or a turn signal? Studies show that when your mind is engaged in the conversation, optic signals are interrupted – inattention blindness. You may look directly at an approaching traffic signal and never “see” it. The field of vision of what you do see also narrows significantly.

There is some good news. It appears that listening to music while driving has little if any negative effect. Conversing with a passenger seems (in some studies) to be less distracting. It is thought that when the passenger is present and aware of driving conditions (not miles away in an office), the passenger and driver can somehow mitigate the cognitive distraction.

Certainly there are relevant applications in the workplace. Distracting those operating equipment, performing mechanical work or electrical work, come to mind. As we search for new approaches to reduce risk in the workplace, this research may prove useful.

However, it may just be that the greatest impact to safety would be the active avoidance of distractions by each employee when driving to work and back home again each day.

Randy K. Logsdon, CMSP, is manager of safety for Intrepid Potash New Mexico operations. He has practiced safety on both the coal and metal/non-metal side of mining for more than 30 years. Randy is a Certified Mine Safety Professional. ­­­He can be reached at [email protected]

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