The dangers of texting while driving recently received renewed attention thanks to a public service video produced by German film director Werner Herzog. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver distraction results in approximately 3,000 deaths per year, as well as an additional 400,000 injuries. Experts have estimated that the risk of a crash may increase by more than 20 times when texting, exceeding the risk associated with intoxication.
Texting while driving is just one example of a larger phenomenon of our age, often referred to as multitasking. The term was coined by IBM engineers in the 1960s to refer to the ability of a microprocessor to perform multiple tasks at once. Today the term is more often applied to human beings attempting to do more than one thing, such as simultaneously watching television and folding laundry, or answering emails while talking on the phone. Many health professionals pride themselves on their multitasking.
In fact, however, the term multitasking is a bit of a misnomer, even in the domain of computing. At least where one microprocessor is concerned, a computer does not so much multitask as it switches back and forth between tasks at such a high rate of speed that it appears to be doing multiple things at once. Only more recently, with the advent of multicore processing, has it become possible for computers genuinely to multitask.
The same thing applies to human beings. Health professionals and others who think they are multitasking are typically switching back and forth between different tasks over short periods of time. And in most cases, multitaskers are not able to perform any of the activities in which they are engaged as well as they could if they concentrated on them one at a time. It takes time and effort to re-focus on each task at hand, and this tends to degrade the effectiveness and efficiency of each.
To be sure, multitasking is not impossible. In one sense, simply remaining alive requires us to multitask all the time. Our hearts are continuously pumping, lungs exchanging gases, kidneys filtering the blood, immune system fighting infections, and all the while we are also digesting our last meal. Add to this the ceaseless multitasking of the brain, which is monitoring the environment and maintaining our posture while simultaneously walking and chewing gum, and the complexity multiples.