Cell Phones and Response Times: Phil Ross
Serial and parallel processing in humans operate much in the same fashion as an electrical circuit for lights. If the light fixtures are linked in series and one fails, the complete back of lights go out. However, if the lights are connected via a parallel circuit, only the faulty unit will go down. Most lights are hooked up in parallel so that the area is not void of lights in the event of a failure of one unit. However, with a more complicated operation, an assembly line for instance, is set up in series. If one aspect goes wrong, the whole line is shut down. This is helpful to alert the operator of a failure in the process. When we apply this to human information processing, the parallel processing consists of multiple processes occurring simultaneously. These processes tend to be fast, not as attention demanding and more automatic in nature; whereas serial processing is relatively slow, high in attention demand as well as actively chosen (Schmidt & Lee, 2011).
The act of performing two or more tasks that are serial in nature, such as playing the violin and dialing a phone, would have a severe effect upon performance (Fisher & Plessow, 2015). Contrast this with the many “mindless” tasks that we perform throughout the day without applying much thought to their operation as we put on a shirt, ties our shoes or flush a toilet. Our minds may be occupied with thoughts of our day as we conduct these tasks. Serial and parallel processing do act in a mutually exclusive manner, there are instances when they are operating concurrently. Additionally, parallel processing may actually morph into serial processing (Schmidt & Lee, 2011).
The three main factors to consider when addressing the subject of cell phone operation while driving are: the driving environment, the characteristics of the driver and the nature of the conversation (Schmidt & Lee, 2011, p. 123). Driving requires engagement and focus, especially when the weather and road conditions are bad. There were many instances when I’ve had to “white knuckle it” while driving through a pouring rainstorm on I-95. During those instances, I didn’t even want to have the radio on. Contrast that situation to cruising down an open road on a sunny day. The “white knuckle” scenario would require serial processing while the “sunny day” would enable the driver to slip into an automatic mode typical of parallel processing. The characteristics of the driver also have bearing on the effects of cell phone operation. Some studies demonstrate that older, more experienced drivers that have had more practice are better suited to drive and operate a cell phone simultaneously, but other studies show that practice doesn’t help the situation. I would tend to support the notion of experience does lend to better operation, not only because of the practice involved, but due to the decision making process employed by the more experienced driver. The third factor is the nature of the conversation. The more in depth and complicated the conversation, the more distracted the driver will be. For example, if a driver is conversing with their friend regarding where they are going to meet for dinner as opposed to discussing a theorem of quantum physics; these conversations are drastically different in the amount of thought involved (Schmidt & Lee, 2011).
There are varying degrees of distraction associated with driving and talking or texting on a cell phone. There are laws on the books and they differ from state to state, but I’d like to see them more stringently enforced. There have been many times that I’ve witnessed distracted drivers operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe fashion while using their cell phone. A distracted driver ran a stop sign and hit me and my children while she was on her phone! Personally, I think that the hands-free option is viable, but some data suggests that there is no difference between hands free operation and holding a cell phone by hand. The difference that I see is with the hands free version, the driver does not have to look at the phone and can keep their eyes on the road. I realize that the data doesn’t currently support any difference in regard to safety of hands free versus hand held, but I’d like to see more data on the comparison and review the demographics of the participants in the study.
Cell phones are one of the most notable and widespread piece of technology developed in the past 20 to 30 years. I was already in the workforce for a few years until the cell phone, then called a “car phone” came into popularity in the late 1980’s. As I drive to work I witness many people with their phones to their ears or looking down at their phone propped up on their steering wheel as they simultaneously drive and text. Many of these people have to stop short when an incident arises or they swerve into another lane. It is quite evident that these individuals are distracted. My assumption will be that many of these people do not feel that they require serial processing to operate their motor vehicle and they may be treating their drive to work as a mindless, monotonous task akin to brushing one’s teeth. They can not be more wrong. The laws regarding cell phone use need to be enforced and even expanded.
Article by: Philip Ross, Master RKC, ACE CPT, 8th Degree Black Belt
Schmidt, R. A., & Lee, T. D. (2011). Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Fischer, R., & Plessow, F. (2015). Efficient multitasking: Parallel versus serial processing of multiple tasks. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01366