Medical Fitness for Driving
Approaches to Multitasking Behind The Wheel

Understanding Multitasking Behind The Wheel - Safe Driving Practices

Updated Dec. 11, 2020

Multitasking while driving is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the best drivers are those who can multitask effectively. Of course, we are not talking about doing your make-up, texting on your cell phone or chatting to your passengers while driving; engaging in any activity that unnecessarily takes your attention away from the road is definitely a bad idea!

When we talk about multitasking while driving, we are referring to the many tasks involved in the act of driving itself, such as steering, checking for hazards and managing your speed. To become a safe driver, you must learn to manage these tasks effectively.

Multitasking while driving

While maneuvering a vehicle, drivers must continually multitask in one of two ways:

  • Concurrent multitasking, which involves executing several different tasks at the same time.
  • Sequential multitasking, which involves executing a chain of different tasks. Often, this will mean interrupting one task with another and then resuming the previous task.

While these descriptions help us to break-down and understand how multitasking while driving works, it is important to recognize that there is rarely a clear distinction between the two techniques. Often, you will have to multitask using both these methods, simultaneously.

Multitasking does not only occur in complex driving situations. Even in an “ideal” driving environment, you will often need to perform more than one task at the same time. Here are some examples:

  1. 1

    While turning the steering wheel, drivers must also operate the car’s pedals and monitor the situation on the road ahead.

  2. 2

    When activating your turn signals or headlights, you will usually be performing various other actions to control speed and/or alter course.

  3. 3

    Driving on hills or through curves in the road often requires drivers to adjust speed, steer and change gears simultaneously.

In less-than-favorable driving conditions, there are likely to be other complicating factors to consider which may demand further multitasking action. Imagine trying to steer, indicate, operate the pedals, manage your speed, read road signs AND pay attention to the movement of other nearby road users at the same time! This may sound impossible but plenty of drivers do it, every day.

How to multitask while driving

Multitasking will get easier as you become more familiar with the vehicle you are driving. Initially, you will have to think about where the controls in your vehicle are located. With practice, you will be able to activate your turn signal, switch your headlights on and use all the other essential controls almost instinctively, without taking attention away from monitoring the road or executing other tasks.

Getting acquainted with the location and function of your in-car controls should be your top priority when you first begin learning to drive. Drivers must also learn the correct procedures used to maneuver a vehicle (e.g. adopting the proper hand position on the steering wheel) and stick to these methods, at all times. This is how effective multitasking habits are formed.

Taking your eyes off the road

Sometimes it will be necessary to take your eyes of the roadway ahead of your vehicle. When performing any action which requires you to look away from the roadway (for instance, turning to check your vehicle’s blind spots before changing lanes), always begin and end that action by scanning the road ahead and to both sides of the vehicle. This will minimize the chances of missing something important when you turn away.

Adjusting your driving speed before looking away

Prior to looking away from the roadway ahead of your vehicle, it is best to adjust your driving speed to pre-emptively compensate for any hazards which may appear in the few moments your attention is averted. For example:

  • An irresponsible pedestrian could step into the road mid-block.
  • A vehicle on the roadway ahead of you may brake suddenly.
  • Vehicles adjacent to you may start to merge into your lane.
  • Debris could fall into the roadway or an accident could occur ahead of you.

Lowering your speed before looking elsewhere will reduce the chances of a crash occurring (or limit the severity of an unavoidable crash), if anything unexpected happens while your head is turned.

Monitoring other road users

As the behavior of other road users is one of the most unpredictable variables in any driving situation, motorists must ALWAYS monitor the activity around their vehicles and on the roadway up ahead.

You should pay special attention to vulnerable road users while doing this. Look out for pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and other vulnerable road users, making sure you are ready to take evasive action to avoid a collision. Always check for pedestrians before taking your eyes off the road and immediately after returning your gaze to the roadway.

Avoiding target fixation

While effective multitasking involves giving due attention to every important task, you must not fall into the trap of dedicating too much attention to any one task. Never spend more time than is needed on any action while driving.

Looking at one place on the roadway for too long can be a real problem for drivers; this is known as target fixation. Every moment that your attention is fixed on one spot, you could be failing to see dangers on other parts of the roadway. Whenever you turn to look over your shoulder or anywhere other than the roadway ahead, keep your gaze there for only as long as it takes to perform the necessary check.

Managing your time while driving

Drivers must never take their attention away from the roadway for more than half a second – a great deal can happen, even in that short time. Of course, some tasks which require looking away from the road ahead will take more than half a second. In such situations, you must alternate between looking ahead and averting your gaze to complete the task, so that your attention is not taken away from the road for more than half a second at a time.

If you manage your time effectively and reduce speed to make sure there is increased space around your vehicle, it is very unlikely that an accident or collision will occur in the time you have looked away.

Avoiding distractions

Every time you add another task to the list of actions you are performing concurrently or sequentially, your ability to perform all tasks on the list effectively is hindered. With every task added to your list, it becomes easier to get overwhelmed and harder to identify dangers. Motorists must never become distracted by unnecessary tasks, or by diverting so much attention to a necessary task, that they cannot effectively monitor the driving environment. Driver distraction is a common cause of accidents and collisions.

Effective task prioritization and time management will stop you from getting overwhelmed or losing concentration while driving. In complex situations that require many different actions:

  1. Reduce your speed to allow yourself more time to process the situation and react.
  2. Alternate between tasks when necessary.
  3. Avoid unnecessary tasks, such as switching over the radio station or operating a navigation device.

Scanning the road ahead

Multitasking is significantly easier and less stressful when you are aware of actions you must make ahead of time. Continually scanning the roadway ahead will stop you from flying by the seat of your pants and trying to execute maneuvers at the last moment. The more information about the upcoming driving conditions you have, the safer you will be.

By scanning the roadway ahead, drivers can identify turns they will need to make, changes in road rules and potentially dangerous situations in time to prepare for them effectively. Always keep your eyes moving over the roadway in front of your vehicle, rather than staring at a single spot.

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