Safe driving is a skill that demands our complete concentration. Allowing one’s attention to drift from the road, even for a brief moment, can have tragic consequences. Unfortunately, all too many of us continue to tempt fate by driving while distracted.
What constitutes “distracted driving”? The NHTSA defines it as “any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing.” Essentially, doing anything that takes your eyes off the road (visual distraction), your hands off the steering wheel (manual distraction), or your mind off what’s going on around you (cognitive distraction) is considered distracted driving.
Chatting on a cell phone and texting while driving are certainly major forms of driver distraction that have justifiably garnered their share of attention lately, but they aren’t the only activities competing for our attention on the road. Other examples of common driver distractions include activities like changing the station or music selection on your car stereo, taking a bite of fast-food hamburger or a sip of coffee or soda, checking your makeup (or, worse, applying makeup) in the car mirror, reading a map, conversing with passengers, improperly secured pets moving around inside the vehicle, or, depending on the location of the viewing screen, even watching a video. Texting while driving is particularly worrisome because it simultaneously involves visual, manual, and cognitive distraction.
Owing to their lack of experience, which can lead to poor judgment at crucial moments, the drivers most at risk of being involved in a fatal distraction-related vehicle crash are those under 20 years of age. Unfortunately, drivers in this age group are also the most likely to communicate through texting. Of course, teenage drivers aren’t the only ones who are being distracted by technology. More and more drivers of all ages are using cell phones and other handheld devices while behind the wheel.
What about hands-free cell phones? Aren’t they considerably safer than handheld phones? While that would seem to make sense, hands-free devices do little if anything to reduce distraction-related accidents. While they may address the issue of manual distraction, they do nothing to eliminate the cognitive distraction associated with cell phone use. In fact, based on the findings of a University of Utah study, using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s handheld or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.
Another myth is that some people deal better than others with driving distractions because they are simply better at multitasking. The truth is, good “multitaskers” have, through practice, become skilled at switching from one task to another rapidly. However, they are no better than the rest of us when it comes to performing more than one task simultaneously. Hence, whatever they might think, they are no less likely to be involved in a distraction-related motor vehicle accident.
While many states have enacted, or are soon to enact, legislation that prohibits certain driver distractions, such as talking or texting on cell phones, laws alone aren’t enough. Distracted driving is a problem for everyone on the road, and we all have a stake in solving it. Each of us must do our part to set aside distractions when we drive. After all, no phone call, text message, song, or bite of food is so important that it’s worth putting yourself or other drivers at risk of serious injury or death. It’s especially important for parents of teenage drivers to discuss the dangers of texting, cell phone use, and other forms of distracted driving with their teens as well as to provide a positive example by avoiding distractions whenever they climb into the driver’s seat. ❦