Multitasking Makes Drivers Feel Confident, Is Killing a Historic Number of Them

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Photo: Dark Horse/Getty Images/Cultura

Just a few weeks ago in Tampa, Florida, 22-year-old Pablo Cortes III was speeding down a highway in his Volkswagen Golf when he lost control, jumped the median, and slammed head-on into a minivan, which caught fire, twisted, and struck two other vehicles. Cortes, his passenger, and three others died in the crash. Before the crash, his passenger, 19-year-old Jolie Bartolome, recorded a Snapchat video with the speedometer filter, reading 115 miles an hour.

It’s indicative of the biggest spike in traffic deaths in half a century, the New York Times reports. After decades of reductions in vehicular deaths, they’ve shot up as of late; last year marked a historic high, and 2016, just like everything else this year, is even worse. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, the first six months of the year saw 17,775 vehicular deaths, up 10 percent from last year.

A root cause: the endless amount of electronic distractions on offer. And it’s not like having a fancy heads-up display makes you less distracted. The problem isn’t the hardware of the car, but the biology of the human beings. Indeed, being able to dictate texts to your car might encourage even more multitasking, argues National Safety Council president Deborah Hersman. “It’s the cognitive workload on your brain that’s the problem,” she tells the Times.

The bedeviling thing about multitasking, the cognitive-science research indicates, is that people who do it more are worse at it. The problem lies with metacognition, or your mind’s ability to monitor the various phenomena happening in your sensory experience. Like a web browser with too many tabs open, the more tasks you’re attending to, the less space you have to assess how you’re performing — meaning that you actually feel more, rather than less, confident, since you don’t have the bandwidth to worry about how you’re doing. The tragic irony, then, is that the people who are texting and driving think that they’re doing great. Until it’s too late.