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Australian Study: Multitasking and Driver Safety

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Keep your eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel - this is exactly what many Australians aren’t doing when they’re driving, according to new research.

What Australians do While Driving

One in four Australians multitask while driving

We surveyed more than 1,000 Australians aged 18 to 65+ online and asked them two questions about their driving habits. When asked how often they participated in other activities (like checking their phone) while driving, 26.6% indicated that they multitasked.

This is how often the respondents who said they multitasked did so:

  • Only when stopped at a light - 41.3%
  • Maybe now and then - 38%
  • All the time - 20.7%

What we get up to behind the wheel

When we asked what sort of things the respondents did while driving, the results came back with some fascinating insights.

75.1% eat while driving

The temptation to reach for the fresh bag of takeaway straight from the drive-through is very real. As is the lure of shaving a few minutes off your morning routine to have breakfast in the car.

But the reality is, this could be a costly mistake.

Driving instructor and Managing Director of Total Driver Gene Corbett said research has shown that people who are eating while driving have 44% slower reaction times and are 18% more likely to have poor lane control.

“The most dangerous food to eat is chocolate. It melts on your fingers, gets on your controls and the driver becomes so preoccupied cleaning it up, they crash,” he said.

18% of women put makeup on

It’s something that we see a lot on the road. Younger women also tend to apply makeup while driving more than other generations - 25% of female respondents aged 25-34.

A lot of women will claim they are much better multitaskers than men, which Gene said could be the truth.

“The connection is called the Corpus Callosum, and it connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In the male’s brain, it is fairly small. So, the information transfer between left and right is slow… which is why men will turn the radio down when taking directions, or turn the TV off whilst taking a phone call or having a conversation,” he said.

“With women, the connection is larger, so the information transfer rate is a lot higher.”

Despite this fact, Gene said a woman’s enhanced multitasking ability is not beneficial while driving due to our human brain’s inability to process speed.

“See, our brains are wired for our natural environment, to walk and run,” he said.

“So, everything it wants to do there that keeps us alive is perfectly suited to the tasks. It is called ‘Embodied Cognitive Skills’.

“In simple terms, the faster we drive, the more distance we cover with every second. Yet our brain is not allowing for that.”

9.4% of men brush their teeth

via GIPHY

It seems ridiculous and highly impractical but nearly one in 10 male drivers said they brushed their teeth while driving.

AHPRA-registered Occupational Therapist Kate Walker specialises in driving assessment. She takes referrals from doctors who have a patient with a medical condition that may impact their ability to drive safely. Kate also does a lot of work auto insurers.

After hearing what kinds of activities distract Australian drivers, Kate said she was “particularly concerned with the teeth cleaning”.

“At 60km/h a car travels 83 metres in 5 seconds. A LOT can go wrong in 83 metres,” she said.

8.5% change their clothes behind the wheel

Younger men are also more willing to strip off behind the wheel. Incredibly, 18% of male respondents aged 18-24 said they changed clothes while driving.

Never mind the distraction of reaching for your change of clothes or taking your pants off while watching out for any any on-lookers (or not), having your eyes covered while slipping on a shirt could be deadly.

Gene Corbett said being distracted while driving, even for only a few seconds, is like driving with a blindfold on.

“If the average driver only looks half a second up the road and it takes the average person 1 – 1.5 seconds to react, the driver is already 1 second into the very accident they are creating. Essentially they are driving blind,” he said.

“Now think about how long it takes to read a text message… 5 seconds… you are now 6 seconds into the crash. At 100kph you have now travelled 166 metres blind.”

55% use their phone

A similar study recently of 1,001 Australians by the Australian Road Safety Foundation and Bob Jane T-Marts found more than half of respondents handled their phone while driving, as reported by The Herald Sun.

Kate Walker said the law was another reason to not be tempted to reach for your phone, sandwhich or makeup brush.

“It is illegal for L and P platers to use a phone in a car at all and fully licenced drivers can make calls, listen to music, or use sat nav ONLY if the device is in a fixed cradle and does not require hand operation,” she said.

“Specifically banned for drivers are email, social media, videos and photos. Fine is $325 and also 4 demerits.”

Fundamentally, there were also “clinical reasons” why drivers shouldn’t multitask while driving due to things like vision, cognitive abilities and biomechanical/sensory/proprioceptive issues that affect a driver’s focus.

“Driving requires a high level of skill and concentration and there is not too much "brain space" left for more distractions. Plus they need to be alert to the ever-present danger of ‘surprises’ - ie another driver or a pedestrian doing something stupid,” Kate said.

“I have seen patients with severe injuries caused in MVAs by the inattention of other road users - particularly spinal cord injury, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Needless to say they have strong opinions on the issue of driver distraction! But very rewarding to see them back to driving and other activities that are important to them.”

6.5% read or watch videos

Are our attention spans so short that we have to be entertained by more visual stimuli than moving traffic? It obviously is for a small portion of drivers, according to our respondents.

Another study by Finder revealed other dangerous and absurd things Australians do while driving. Out of their 1,800 respondents, 14% admitted to driving with their knees. Other activities even included challenging themselves to drive as long as possible with their eyes closed.

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