Interruptions: Meh, but Distracted Driving: Deadly

October 1, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work, interruption science | 1 Comment

Great article in the New York Times about distracted drivers: “At 60 M.P.H., Office Work Is High Risk” (part of an ongoing series).  I’ve shown a bit of skepticism in past entries about the extent of the cost of interruptions for information workers and the intractability of the problem.  I’ve said many of the interruptions fall into models that are either a net positive for the organization with closed-loop analysis, required by social contract, or better classified as social interactions and distractions.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think distractions are a major issue.  Just that the cost, causes, and solutions are different for interruptions and distractions so it’s best not to blend them together.  For example, the messaging inbox is the most classic information worker distraction, but it can be dealt with by turning off toasts (for wired workers) or mobile devices.

I have also assumed that the task one is being distracted from is important, but not life critical such as performing surgery, disarming a bomb, sneaking up on an insurgent safehouse … or driving.  Distracted drivers are, in my opinion, a serious issue.

I think this issue decomposes into several parts and the NYT article is the first I’ve seen that does a good job of addressing most of them:

Shaking and shaming users: The ‘ol shake&shame is a one-two punch.  Start with horrifying anecdotes, articles, stats, and videos on how bad your behavior is without you knowing it.  Then follow with shaming by describing how inconsiderate these drivers are, how dumb it is (if it’s an editorial), how you’re not that important that you need to respond immediately, and end with its effects on the people and family of those injured or killed.

Legal: Can you successfully outlaw texting while driving?  It’s symbolic and, like seat belt laws, something that adds a slight risk of penalty after the fact if something happens (like tracing text messages to a conductor seconds before a crash).  Hey, it’s worth a shot for those extreme cases when something tragic results.

Psychological: How distractable are people?  Can they really multi-task?  Is it an addiction, ADHD, etc?  It certainly seems to me the majority of SUVs veering into my lane, driving real slow and then making a quick move, or running red lights slowly are on a mobile device.  And the research confirms my suspicions that technology like handsfree interfaces don’t solve the problem.  And while I think multi-tasking can work for information workers with coarsely grained, long-running tasks, I think it’s deadly for drivers.  There’s a fun game to test this at the NYT site.

Expectations: To what extent do the expectations of employers, customers, family, and other message senders drive the apparent need to respond immediately?  To what extent does an expectation of productivity later require culling messages now?  This is the part I’ve spent the most time thinking about and the NYT article finally sheds some light on.  No employer admits to requiring these responses (duh), but the plumber example shows how competitive pressure provides informal expectations.  I was in a cab going home from the airport on Friday and the taxi computer had popped up that a van was needed in zone 776.  My driver, since we were in a van, spent the next 10 minutes trying to rapidly respond to accept the pickup.  One time we came close enough to rear-ending another car that I was bug-eyed for a few seconds.  It seems the computer was smart enough to not allow him to claim the pickup for some reason, whether it’s because we were moving or the GPS noticed we were too far for him to promise a pickup (which would explain why my taxis always take twice as long as promised to arrive for pickups).

Success at getting people to stop texting while driving will depend more on managing the expectations of message senders for quick responses than it will on shaking&shaming, laws, or better research.  This goal is difficult to impossible depending on each situation.  “Feeling important” may be solvable with shaking&shaming, but for the plumber or taxi driver whose livelihood depends on picking up a job before the next guy gets it will be nearly impossible to reach.

Still, there may be some hope if the Domino’s Pizza example applies.  Domino’s advertising set an expectation for 30 minute delivery, but some large settlements for accidents prompted them to water down the expectation (to “satisfaction guaranteed”). I haven’t seen statistics on whether the settlements have decreased, but the goal was certainly that eliminating the expectation would eliminate the reckless driving behavior it caused.  Over time the same may occur to some extent with distracted driving.  For example, if a plumbing company anywhere in the US has to pay a multi-million dollar settlement and it goes viral on the news, you could see plumbing companies change their process to round-robin assignments or select randomly from all responses within the next 2 hours.


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  1. […] | Leave a Comment Some attention management analysis seems to be needed in cockpits these days. I wrote previously about the danger of distracted driving, as demonstrated in a series of articles in the New York Times.  But how could I overlook the […]

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