Can playing patty-cake make us safer drivers?

Brought to you by our Director of Training, Scott Marshall and The Safe Driver.

I’ve said for many years, you’re not going to do what you’re told. You’re going to do what you believe in. This is especially true when it comes to driving. In the decades that I’ve been involved in road safety, many drivers have created a difficult task for themselves by believing something which may go against their original belief.

Distracted driving is a huge problem within our society. Many people have grown up using a cell phone to access their social media. They feel they constantly need to access it. They seem to suffer from “FOMO” – Fear Of Missing Out. My job when I’m teaching people to drive is to convince them they need to focus on driving and avoid everything else. Here’s what I do in the classroom.

There’s an old saying that “it’s more difficult to argue with yourself then it is with someone else”. I use that mentality when I get my students to perform an activity. I first ask the students in my class of new drivers to do a simple game of patty-cake using their kneecaps instead of the hands of someone next to them. I also do it with them so they can follow along. Once they get the hang of the order, I speed it up and ask them to keep up with me. They tend to do well and seem satisfied with their ability to play the simple game of patty-cake. Then we move on.

The next task is to recite the alphabet together. The only trick is, to do it starting with Z and go backward. On the count of 3, they begin but tend to only get 5 or 6 letters before they pause to think of the next letter. Now comes the last part – the best part.

I let the participants know that I will only be observing but that I want them to now combine doing patty-cake while they say the alphabet in reverse order. Each participant slows down – or stops – doing the patty-cake while they think of the next letter. Patty-cake was something they could do very easily previously but now failed to do at all. Why? Their brain can only handle one thought-provoking task at one time. They couldn’t concentrate on the simple game of patty-cake while thinking of the order of reciting the alphabet backward.

Yes, we can do other tasks together at the same time, provided each of the other tasks were habits and only one task was thought-provoking. For example, a basketball player knows how to dribble the basketball without having to look at the ball so they can look to their team mates to know what to do with the ball. They don’t have to focus on what they’re doing with the ball. However, thinking you can multi-task can lead to serious driving consequences.

Some people confused multi-tasking with task-switching. Task-switching is when you quickly switch from one task to the other. It only seems like you’re doing both together, but in reality, you’re not.

As a driver you’re used to steering, braking and accelerating smoothly. They become habitual. But what if you’re having a heated conversation in the vehicle with someone; whether it’s live or on the phone. Your mind is now on that conversation. However, if a pedestrian just steps out between two vehicles you’ll be late with responding to them. This is because your mind is on that conversation and not on the driving task. The same can be said about running a red light, you may not realize the light ahead is red and you drive straight through it. What if the driver in front of you brakes hard? You may be late responding to them because you’re not really focusing on the traffic pattern ahead of you.

It’s not just about having 2 hands on the wheel that keeps you safe on the road. It’s about having your mind focused on the driving task. Distracted driving is a form of impaired driving. That’s what patty-cake teaches us.