'Supertaskers' That Can Drive and Talk on Phone Rare
Joel Cooper, a University of Utah doctoral student in psychology, demonstrates how subjects in a new study talked on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator. The new Utah study found that motorists on cell phones contribute to traffic congestion because they drive slower and are less likely to pass slow-moving vehicles.
Credit: Ivana Vladisavljevic

A very small percentage of the population can safely drive while talking on their cell phones, but chances are high that you're not one of these "supertaskers."

In a new study, psychologists have identified a group of people who can successfully do two things at once, in this case talking on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.

Supertaskers only make up about 2.5 percent of the general population, however, said study team member James Watson of the University of Utah.

"Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers," Watson said.

"And while we’d probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it.  In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row."

In the study, the researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas: braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.

As expected, the driving ability of most of the participants suffered if they simultaneously talked on their cell phones.

It took them 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed, and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with the simulated traffic. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell 3 percent.

However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved 3 percent.

“There is clearly something special about the supertaskers,” said study co-author David Strayer, also of the University of Utah.

“Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference."

Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to be natural supertaskers.

The study will be published later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.