Rules of the Road

Think it would be pretty dumb to drive stoned? Doing this makes you even dumber

Chewbacca, Darth Vader get schooled by police on dangers of distracted driving

Police officers in Las Vegas, Nevada, enlisted the help of a famous Wookie and members of the Galactic Empire to help hammer home the message that distracted driving can lead you to the dark side.
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Police officers in Las Vegas, Nevada, enlisted the help of a famous Wookie and members of the Galactic Empire to help hammer home the message that distracted driving can lead you to the dark side.

Question: Last summer the state passed a tougher distracted driving law. Is it working? It doesn’t look like it to me.

Answer: For about a month after the law passed, it seemed like drivers had made a choice to put down their phones while driving.

I say this because, by coincidence, our local bike and pedestrian count happened a few weeks after the law was enacted, and I spent a couple of hours watching traffic at an intersection in Bellingham. During that time I saw maybe five people on their phones, whereas in previous observations, about one in 10 people were on the phone while driving.

Fast-forward to now, and it kind of seems like the law hasn’t had the impact we hoped for. I’ve asked our local law enforcement if they’ve seen a change in behavior, and by their response, I’d say they agree with you. A lot of drivers are still choosing to compromise their driving ability with electronic distractions.

In the past I’ve written about how you’re four times more likely to get in a crash if you talk on the phone while driving, and about 20 times more likely to crash if you’re texting. The data is out there, so I’m not going to dwell on it right now. If you don’t believe me, it’s not hard to look it up.

Instead, I’d like to point out some studies on the topic of multi-tasking.

If ever there was an activity that could be classified as multi-tasking, it would be driving while using a phone. Both tasks require cognitive focus, both require visual attention and both require physical manipulation.

And here is the outcome of the studies: multi-tasking makes you stupid. I’m not calling anyone names; I’m just referencing the research.

Washington state's distracted driving law strictly limits what you can and can't do with your cellphone while driving.

We have a cultural stereotype, often found in movies and on TV, of the dumb pot-smoker. And organizations have reinforced that message with PSAs that compare your brain on drugs to a fried egg.

Here’s the irony, according to one study: “Multitasking with electronic media caused a temporary 10-point decrease in IQ – a worse effect than smoking marijuana.”

I’m not suggesting that driving after smoking marijuana is a good idea – it’s not. It’s just that a lot of people who would never drive after using an impairing substance are willing to take an even greater risk by intentionally making themselves dumber than a stoned driver.

Not only does multi-tasking cause a short-term decrease in IQ, it also impairs decision-making skills and shrinks your brain.

When we multi-task, we essentially give up the practice of prioritization. As you can expect, if you don’t practice prioritization and decision-making in the small stuff, you won’t be good at it when you’re faced with the big stuff; like a split-second driving decision.

Multi-tasking also creates something called the post-refractory pause. It’s that moment between shifting from one task to another where your brain is doing nothing for you.

As I’ve mentioned before, true multi-tasking is a myth. We’re actually task-switching. Our brains can’t focus on two things at once.

If you’re using your phone while driving, it’ll take some time to shift from processing the comment you heard on the phone to noticing the red light you’re about to drive through.

Maybe you think you’re the exception. “Sure,” you think, “some people are bad at multi-tasking, but not me.” Sorry to disappoint you, but a study from the University of Utah found that “if you think you’re good at it, you’re actually worse than everyone else.”

Thankfully, at any given moment most people aren’t on their phones while driving. If you’ve been in the minority in the past by using your phone behind the wheel, I’ll encourage you to make a change. Based on the research, you’d be dumb not to (by about 10 IQ points).

Although some drivers haven’t changed their behavior, the law has certainly made it easier for police to enforce distracted driving violations.

Beginning this week, law enforcement agencies across Washington are giving extra attention to distracted drivers, and we have some special emphasis patrols scheduled here in our community. You can easily avoid getting a ticket; just be one of the majority on the road that aren’t using their phones. It’ll save you $136 and make you 10 IQ points smarter. Win-win.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.

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