Richard G. Petty, MD

Teen Driving Risks

I have been very concerned about the burgeoning evidence of the dangers of being distracted while driving.

My concerns have been buttressed by a new report.

A national survey
of more than 5,600 high school students conducted by an alliance
between The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm
Insurance Companies indicates that
high school students are routinely driving under highly
dangerous conditions.

Teens who participated in the study say they routinely drive while fatigued and while talking on cell
phones, and that they let strong emotions cloud their judgment. Many also admitted that they are not wearing seatbelts.

The National Teen Driver Survey represents 10.6 million 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students in U.S. public high schools.

The survey results are available as a downloadable report on Keeping Young Drivers Safe,
a new Web site for parents and educators from the Children’s Hospital
of Philadelphia/State Farm alliance. The site is packed with practical
information on developing a plan that will enable new drivers to
develop the skills and habits they need to stay safe.

You can also visit the site at, where you will find information on working with a new driver to set goals and
rules; developing a timeline for parent-guided driving lessons; and
developing a parent/teen driving agreement.

Apple Computers

I make no bones about it; I’m a Mac guy. Always have been, and probably always will be.

I don’t have any stock in the company, but I think that I’m on about my ninth or tenth Apple computer. Every time that I have to scuttle off to use a Window’s based machine I start getting antsy.

Apple has just had their Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

As a scientist and clinician very concerned about the epidemic of attentional and mood disorders in the population, something caught my eye. During Steve Jobs’ keynote preview, in which he highlighted some of the key features of the new Mac OS X “Leopard” operating system, there was more and more emphasis on developments designed to reduce the frustrations of working with a computer and ways to deal with the ever-increasing number of demands on our attention. There were a dozen new gizmos all designed to simplify and streamline our interactions with our computers, email and our Internet experience.

I don’t know whether this is the fruit of market research, or just a natural reaction by computer developers who are feeling themselves overwhelmed by a constant barrage on information. But whichever it is, I’m delighted to see this very welcome development.

Note to self, maybe I should send this note to Steve Jobs and say a big "thank you" on behalf of millons of users.


Here’s a study that came I under the radar, but is an important contribution to our on-going discussions about the perils of multi-tasking.

Glenn Wilson, a psychologist at my alma mater in London did a most interesting study funded by, of all people, Hewlett Packard.

It was a postal study carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and the main finding was that excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence.

Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls were fond to have a 10-point fall in their IQ. That would be more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana. People who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind and the brain as losing a night’s sleep

More than half of the 1,100 respondents said they always responded to an email "immediately" or as soon as possible, with 21% admitting they would interrupt a meeting to do so.

Do we really need any more evidence to confirm the dangers of multitasking and constant partial attention?

I don’t think so.

Therefore I’m going to continue to publish tips and techniques for dealing with the barrage of information that threatens to drown us.

Even before the oceans begin to rise….

Why the Multitasking Discussion is Not an Academic Exercise

I have written several pieces about the perils of multitasking, and why one of the most dangerous of all is the use of cell phones in cars.

I began to become concerned about this several years ago when a young woman in England was jailed after she killed someone while trying to drive a car while flirting with her boyfriend on her cell phone.

Now another tragedy has been reported by the BBC.

I am all for liberty and freedom: personal freedom is one of the most central planks of my philosophy.

Though these fatal cases are thankfully rare, is even one life more important than the “convenience” of using a cell phone? Because that is the real issue: none of us can effectively handle the ever-increasing numbers of sensory inputs that are demanding our attention. And why, exactly, does someone need to be talking while in control of a potentially lethal weapon?

And don’t let people tell you that it’s the only way to get everything done! Wouldn’t that mean that they cannot deal with their day, and that you don’t care about the people that they could be affecting? Wouldn’t that comment imply that it’s time to re-evaluate their lives?

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Yet Another Piece of Research on the Dangers of Multitasking

Time has published another article on one of my “favorite” topics: the dangers of multitasking. I’ve written several items about this pernicious problem.

The new study from UCLA, is in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The investigators recruited a group of volunteers, all of whom were in their 20s. They had them work on a simple categorization task, in which they were asked to sort a stack of cards into different piles depending on the shapes printed on them. The volunteers then repeated the experiment with a second set of cards, this time while also listening to a set of high- and low-pitched beeps through a headphone and counting up all the high-pitched ones. As they worked, the subjects also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging that enables us to follow brain blood flow.

In both versions of the test, the subjects did equally well on the categorization task, making about the same amount of errors. But when the investigators later asked the volunteers more-analytical questions, asking them details about the patterns of the cards and ways in which they could be categorized, the subjects showed a far more flexible understanding of those cards they had sorted without the distraction of the beeps.

When not distracted, the hippocampus of the brain, which is involved in creating short term memories and in constructing a map of external space, was actively engaged. When distracted by beeps, a less sophisticated part of the brain – the striatum – took over the task. This is one of the brain regions normally dedicated to mastering repetitive motor task or simple habits.

The practical consequence of this is that if you need to learn new information that requires analysis, you should not be doing anything else at the same time.

It may be that some people with attention deficit disorder will behave differently: there is some data that a proportion of them learn better if there are external distractors.

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More on the Perils of Multi-Tasking

I have talked before about the perils of multi-tasking and partial attention.

New research by Professor David Strayer at the University of Utah has confirmed previous research indicating that speaking on a mobile phone is at least as dangerous as driving while over the legal alcohol limit. The research is published in the journal Human Factors. Cell phones are so distracting because of a phenomenon called "inattention blindness," where the drivers enter a kind of "virtual reality" with the person they’re talking to. In the research, the drivers who talked on phones remembered half as many of the objects they looked at compared to those who were driving without talking on phones. Furthermore, the drivers did not even realize that they weren’t really "seeing" everything in front of them on the road: they thought they were driving perfectly safely. So it is likely that using a cell phone – even a hands free model – is considerably more distracting even than eating or drinking while driving.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can safely juggle driving and your cell phone: you may drop one or the other.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
— Henry David Thoreau (American Essayist and Philosopher, 1817-1862)

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