Distracted Driving Involves Much More Than Texting

Most operators of motor vehicles recognize that texting while driving is unsafe, because it momentarily distracts the driver. Those who text while driving either have no idea about the inherent danger, or operate under the familiar false sense of security that bad things only happen to other people.

Of course, the people who would never text while driving — and who may point to those who text as dangerous — probably also have no idea how many distractions may affect their own driving, or just how dangerous those distractions can be.

If you don’t think you face any distractions while driving, ask yourself a few simple questions. Do you ever eat or drink while driving? Change the radio? Talk to a passenger? Make a phone call (even with a hands-free device)? Adjust your GPS? Delay a needed trip to the restroom? Daydream about an upcoming meeting or a vacation?

All of those things are distractions, and all of them can affect your driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 1 in every 5 crashes during 2009 involved distracted driving. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System said that during that same year, 5,474 fatalities and 448,000 injuries occurred as a result of those accidents.

In another study, NHTSA equipped 100 cars with camera and data recording equipment. They concluded that 22 percent of the crashes and near-accidents that occurred during the study involved the drivers being distracted by a secondary task.

Understanding distracted driving

We’re so accustomed to climbing into our cars and trucks and heading down the road that we tend to forget that driving is an inherently complex act that demands a lot from our brains. We have to maintain visual contact with the world around us, so we can adjust our position and speed to meet changing conditions or avoid sudden dangers. We use our manual dexterity to turn the steering wheel and change the pressure on the accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals. Finally, our cognitive function helps us process all the information we receive, so we can instinctively take the correct action.

Distracted driving occurs when we engage in any action that interferes with those processes. For example, a visual distraction involves any action that takes our eyes off the road, such as glancing down at a map or a radio dial. A manual distraction takes our hands off the wheel or our feet away from the pedals. Reaching for a cup of coffee or using your feet to move a dropped object are common manual distractions. A cognitive distraction is anything that takes our full attention away from the activity of driving. Something as simple as talking with a passenger or singing along with our favorite MP3s creates a cognitive distraction.

What makes texting while driving particularly dangerous is that it involves all three types of distractions simultaneously. Looking at the screen and keyboard creates a visual distraction. Typing or scrolling a message uses our fingers, which provides a manual distraction. And processing an incoming text or thinking of a reply creates a cognitive distraction.

Any distraction is dangerous

While texting while driving is dangerous enough that most states have made it illegal, it’s important to remember that any kind of distraction while driving can put you at risk of an accident. Even daydreaming can be very risky. Have you ever suddenly become aware that you’ve driven several miles down the road and had no recollection of getting there? Your cognitive awareness essentially went on “autopilot” while you focused on your daydream. Had a hazard appeared in front of you, you may not have noticed it until it was too late to respond safely.

Suppose that changing the radio station or adjusting your GPS takes your eyes off the road for just two seconds. At 70 miles per hour, your vehicle will travel 102 feet in that time — a third of the way across a football field. A lot can happen in 102 feet at highway speeds. I remember driving in the passing lane on an Interstate highway. My infant daughter made a noise in the back seat, and like every parent, I turned back for a couple seconds to ensure that she was okay. By the time I spun back around, my front left tire had crossed the rumble strip and was at the edge of the grass median.

Another common distraction can be a little embarrassing to discuss, but it’s very important to consider. In our busy world, we may be tempted to delay a bathroom break so that we can get where we’re going more quickly. But when your bladder is responding to that 32-ounce beverage you downed an hour ago, and you’re shifting in your seat to reduce the pressure, your cognitive awareness is focused on your discomfort instead of your driving. A five-minute stop at a rest area or gas station may prevent a dangerous situation. (You’ll feel better, too.)

Any kind of distraction increases your risk of being involved in an accident. Multiple distractions that occur simultaneously increase that risk profoundly.

Who drives while distracted?

The simple answer is that nearly everyone who drives becomes distracted at one time or another. However, younger drivers have been shown to be more prone to distractions. Statistically, the under-20 age group has the highest incidence of fatal crashes in which distractions played a role, with that as a factor in 16 percent of those crashes. About 13 percent of drivers in their 20s who were involved in fatal accidents were distracted.

Interestingly, drivers in southern states were the biggest offenders, followed by those in the west. Midwestern drivers were least likely to use hand-hand devices in their cars.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has said that drivers who use hand-held devices are four times more likely to be involved in injury accidents. Hand-held cell phones are the most common distraction, with drivers in their 30s being the worst offenders. Nearly a quarter of fatal crashes involving those in their 30s were due in at least part to cell phone distractions.

You may use a hands-free device so you can talk on the phone while driving, and you probably think that’s safe. While it may be less distracting than using a hand-held phone, you’re cognitively focused on the conversation instead of the process of driving. If it’s angry or stressful conversation, the distraction multiplies. We’ve all seen fellow drivers who were clearly engaged in an argument while driving — and there’s good reason that we tend to steer away from them.

Either way, consider that research at the University of Utah shows that a driver who uses a cell phone while driving has reaction times that are as slow as someone whose blood-alcohol concentration has reached the legal limit of .08 percent. Just as important, that statistic applied whether the driver was using a hand-held or hands-free device.

Distracted driving and your safety policy
Given the wide variety of distractions and the inherent risk they pose, it makes sense to include provisions related to distracted driving in your organization’s safety policy. The first step is to identify the actual types of distractions to which your employees may be exposed during a normal driving experience.

Once you’ve identified those hazards, create the plan for addressing the risks. You may want to incorporate awareness of distracted driving into your training program. Some companies have firm policies that prohibit employees from using cell phones while their cars are running. Others allow hands-free devices, but may want to reconsider that leniency in light of the research mentioned earlier.

The safest course of action is for every one of us to minimize the distractions we face while driving. For starters, we should all stop using technologies like texting on the road. We’ll protect ourselves — and those who share the road with us — if we focus our full attention on safe driving.

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