Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Driving Impairs Talking

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Driving Impairs Talking

Article excerpt

It is well known that conversation (e.g., on a cell phone) impairs driving. We demonstrate that the reverse is also true: Language production and comprehension, and the encoding of the products of comprehension into memory, are less accurate when one is driving. Ninety-six pairs of drivers and conversation partners engaged in a story-retelling task in a driving simulator. Half of the pairs were older adults. Each pair completed one dual-task block (driving during the retelling task) and two single-task control blocks. The results showed a decline in the accuracy of the drivers' storytelling and of their memory for stories that were told to them by their nondriving partners. Speech production suffered an additional cost when the difficulty of driving increased. Measures of driving performance suggested that the drivers gave priority to the driving task when they were conversing. As a result, their linguistic performance suffered.

Does driving an automobile hurt your ability to hold a conversation on a cell phone? We already know that talking on a cell phone makes driving more dangerous (Briem & Hedman, 1995). We also know that conversing with a caller leads to slower responses to unexpected events (Strayer & Drews, 2004), and that these costs are incurred regardless of whether the cell phone is hands free or handheld (Strayer & Johnston, 2001). The impact of cell-phone conversation on driving has even been equated to that of drinking on driving (Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006). What we do not know is whether and how driving changes how, and how well, we talk.

We ask whether driving impacts speech production, comprehension, and the encoding of the products of comprehension into memory. To the layperson, conversing while driving seems easy. After all, driving uses the eyes, hands, and feet, whereas conversation requires only your mouth and ears. To the psychologist, these are multicomponent, albeit well-practiced, tasks that, despite employing different input and output channels, may share central resources. It turns out that little evidence is available on this question, because the many studies of conversation in automobiles have focused on driving, not on language. The two studies that did measure linguistic performance supported the lay intuition that language does not suffer from driving. Kubose et al. (2006) had drivers produce and comprehend statements about the locations of buildings in the town in which the study was conducted, and Tsimhoni, Green, and Lai (2001) tested the comprehension of spoken navigation, news, and e-mail messages. In both studies, accuracy was uncompromised by simulated driving compared with a parked-car control condition.

These null findings are puzzling. All accounts of how people produce language (e.g., Bock, 1982), understand it (e.g., Holmes & Forster, 1970), and encode it into memory (e.g., Baddeley, 2003) have treated these processes as resource-demanding tasks. Talking and understanding, at least when the sentences express novel thoughts, are actually not easy. Furthermore, we know that drivers may prioritize driving-that is, devote resources to driving at the expense of other activities (Kramer, Cassavaugh, Horrey, Becic, & Mayhugh, 2007). It follows that when driving is prioritized, language should suffer. So why do existing data say otherwise? It could be that such costs are small or that no study has provided a sensitive enough measure. Or it could be that no study has made the simulated driving a sufficient priority. In the present study, we investigated the possible costs to language from driving under different circumstances (e.g., intersection crossing vs. routine driving) and within different subject groups (older vs. younger adults) that would be expected to affect the extent to which driving is prioritized.

The present study assessed the effects of driving on speech production, comprehension, and memory. To accomplish this goal, we used a story-retelling task in which participants heard and then retold short narratives, each of which described a single event (e. …

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