Academic journal article Human Factors

Effect of a Concurrent Auditory Task on Visual Search Performance in a Driving-Related Image-Flicker Task

Academic journal article Human Factors

Effect of a Concurrent Auditory Task on Visual Search Performance in a Driving-Related Image-Flicker Task

Article excerpt


Over the past 10 years there has been an explosive worldwide growth in the use of cellular telephones. In the United States, for example, the number of users increased to more than 95 million in 2000 (more than 30% of the population). Many of them use their telephones while driving vehicles on public roadways, which has prompted concerns about the safety of doing so. In the 1990s, the North American print media recognized this as a "hot button" issue and published a number of articles about it, with sensational headlines such as "Cell Phones and Driving as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving." In recent years, insurance companies in some regions have reacted by increasing the insurance premiums of drivers who use telephones in vehicles (e.g., the province of Quebec in Canada). Some governments have banned the practice altogether (e.g., Australia, Spain, Israel, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Chile, Switzerland, Great Britain, Singapore, and Taiwan). Thus there is a growing awareness of the potential danger of using t elephones while driving.

A number of empirical studies have been conducted to determine why this combination of tasks has a negative effect on driving (e.g., Alm & Nilsson, 1994, 1995; Brown, Tickner, & Simmonds, 1969; McKnight & McKnight, 1993). It appears to be attributable, in part, to people's limited ability to divide attention efficiently while performing concurrent tasks (see Wickens, 1984). In other words, somehow, operating a telephone may provide enough of a distraction to significantly decrease driving performance (for a review, see Goodman, Tijerina, Bents, & Wierwille, 1999).

It has long been known that paying attention plays an important role in optimal task performance (e.g., James, 1890). It is intuitively apparent. In the 1970s in particular, researchers began to systematically study humans' capacity to divide attention while doing two or more tasks simultaneously (e.g., Kahneman, 1973). One emerging theme of this work was that attention can be usefully characterized as a system that allocates some portion of a limited amount of processing "resources" to the performance of a particular task; when a person attempts to perform two difficult tasks at the same time, the combined demand for resources may exceed the system's capacity. This was said to result in the degradation of performance of one or both tasks. Driving performance, for example, may be degraded if the combined demand for resources for driving and operating a telephone exceeds the system's capacity.

Another emerging theme was that dual-task performance improves with practice (e.g., Spelke, Hirst, & Neisser, 1976). Somehow, practice enables attention to be divided more efficiently between two tasks. Advocates of capacity theories suggested that well-practiced tasks may require fewer processing resources and therefore can be performed in combination with other tasks without exceeding the attentional system's resource limit. They also suggested that an extremely well-practiced task may become automatic, in the sense that its performance requires very little attention (e.g., LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Schneider, Dumais, & Shiffrin, 1984).

Much of the research on the development of automaticity has involved the study of motor skills. Walking is one example of a motor skill that is initially difficult in childhood but, with practice, becomes automatic and effortless for adults with normal health. Learning to ride a bicycle or play a sport also involves the automatization of motor skills. With practice, operating a vehicle appears to require progressively less attention and gradually becomes a task that can be performed somewhat automatically.

On this basis, it may be tempting to suggest that with enough practice, it should be possible to safely operate a telephone while driving. In particular, it seems that driving a vehicle in a forward gear can become somewhat automatic over time. …

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