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For Vast Majority, Driving and Cell Phones Don't Mix

Only small percentage, dubbed 'supertaskers,' can do both safely, study finds

WEDNESDAY, March 31 (HealthDay News) -- About one in 40 people might have a special skill: They can drive safely -- at least in a driving simulator -- while talking on a cell phone and dealing with complex problems.

The other 97.5 percent of drivers, however, are out of luck. For them, yakking while driving and thinking hard is just a bad idea, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Utah, whose findings are scheduled to be published in a future issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, refer to the expert multi-taskers as "supertaskers."

"According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," study co-author and psychologist Jason Watson said in a university news release. "Yet, clearly they do, so we use the 'supertasker' term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multi-tasking ability."

"Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers," he said. "And while we'd probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row."

The researchers reached their conclusions after 200 people took part in simulated freeway driving. In one experiment, they talked on a hands-free phone in a conversation that made them memorize words and solve math problems.

For those who weren't supertaskers, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when they were talking on the phone. And the distance at which they followed other cars increased by 30 percent.

Supertaskers didn't have these problems, the study noted.

More information

The Governors Highway Safety Organization has more on cell phone and texting laws.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: University of Utah, news release, March 29, 2010

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