UPDATED: Mar 19, 2020
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In today’s culture of focusing on efficiency and productivity, multitasking is valued as an indispensable skill to possess. However, the belief that people can accomplish two or more tasks with optimal focus and effectiveness is a myth. Human brains cannot perform two tasks at the same time, but they do handle them sequentially, switching between one and the other, depending on what comes into focus. When people attempt to perform two cognitively complex tasks, such as driving while talking on the phone, the brain shifts its focus away from the primary action. This leads to important information falling out of view and not being processed by the brain. People who engage in distracted driving are more prone to automobile crashes because they might miss an important change in the environment and not have enough time to react to it. By engaging in distracted driving, you are putting yourself, all the other passengers in the car, as well as everyone sharing the road at serious risk.
Facts & Statistics
Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of automobile accidents. According to statistics by NHTSA in 2014, 18 percent of crashes that caused injuries and 16 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes were distraction-related crashes. In the same year, it was reported that there were 3,179 people killed and an additional 431,000 wounded in crashes caused by distracted drivers. In addition, there were 520 non-occupants of vehicles who also died as a result of distraction-affected crashes. At the greatest risk are young drivers, perhaps because of inexperience and overestimation of their own ability to multitask.
Drivers are not taking the consequences of distracted driving seriously enough. According to a survey by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers do recognize that being distracted while driving poses a serious threat, and they often find excuses for their own behavior (e.g. 88 percent of the respondents perceived talking on a phone as a threat to safety, however, two-thirds of them admitted they had done it in the last month). In each daylight moment in America, there are approximately 660,000 drivers using cell phones or other electronic devices while driving, which is a number that has not reduced since 2010.
Being focused and attentive while driving is extremely important because it is estimated that for every mile a driver makes an average of 20 major decisions with frequently less than one-half second to act to avoid a crash. For example, sending or receiving a text message distracts a driver for an average of about five seconds. At highway speeds, this means that the car is out of human control and driving itself for about 300 feet, or the distance of a football field.
To learn more, visit any of the following links:
- Federal Communications Commission: The dangers of distracted driving
- Distraction.gov: Facts and statistics
- End Distracted Driving: The facts about distracted driving
Types of Distractions
Traffic safety experts classify distractions into three main categories: manual, visual, and cognitive.
Manual distraction is when you do something else with your hands other than controlling the vehicle.
Visual distractions occur when your eyes focus away from the road to something more interesting inside or outside of the vehicle.
Cognitive distraction is when your mind is not focused on driving and you start thinking about other things.
Most of the below-listed activities fall under more than one category, with texting representing a particularly big problem because it involves all three main types of distractions and takes attention more frequently and for longer periods of time.
Below is a list of types of behavior and how they increase your risk of being involved in a vehicle crash:
- Texting: 23x
- Reaching for a moving object: 9x
- Looking for an external object: 3.7x
- Reading: 3.4x
- Using a cell phone: 4x
- Applying makeup: 3x
Talking on the Phone
Researchers have observed that driving while talking on a handheld phone is so distracting it is like driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08. There is no evidence that going hands-free is any safer. Talking with a hands-free phone represents a cognitive distraction and may render you unable to notice important visual and audio cues from the environment that would ordinarily help you to evade the accident.
Texting is the most dangerous and prevalent form of distracted driving. While texting, you are:
- Visually distracted because you are looking at your phone, rather than the road and cars around you;
- Manually distracted because your hands are not on the wheel, but are holding the mobile phone;
- Cognitively distracted as you concentrate on something else rather than your immediate environment.
Mental distractions, such as talking with other passengers in the car, can cause “inattention blindness.” It means you stop paying attention to what is happening around you because your mind is somewhere else. According to statistics, young drivers have a greater risk of being involved in a car crash when they have friends in the car.
Reaching for an Object in the Vehicle
Reaching for an object inside of the vehicle involves at least two types of distractions: manual and visual. Always make sure that you secure all the items that might move around during the ride, and secure your pets before you depart.
Using GPS, Radio or Other Electronics
This is a very common type of distraction because many people do not realize it is dangerous to adjust the radio, GPS, or air-conditioning while driving. You should always set the temperature in the car, choose the radio station, and set up your GPS before you start driving.
Looking at an Object Outside of the Vehicle
Looking at something outside of the vehicle can be as big of a distraction as something that is happening inside of the car. Always look out for other vehicles and pedestrians while you are driving, and try to block out billboards, shops, and other interesting things that might be happening in the street.
Applying makeup while driving, similar to other types of distractions, takes your eyes and mind off the road, which can lead to a fatal crash that could possibly hurt not just to you, but other passengers and traffic participants as well. You should always give yourself plenty of time to get ready before you leave the house and entering the car.
Eating & Drinking
Eating and drinking while driving often involves more than one type of distraction. Most often, drivers must unwrap the packaging, hold the food with at least one hand, apply condiments, and complete other activities. A driver who is drinking or eating while driving is 3.6 times more likely to be in a vehicle crash than an attentive driver.
Reading in the car does not only refer to reading magazines, pamphlets, or text messages, but also road maps. You should always plan your trip before you set out on a journey, or ask passengers to help you with directions.
For more information, visit:
- World Health Organization: Mobile phone use
- Blank Children’s Hospital: Three types of distracted driving you may do every day
- Youth for Road Safety: Distracted driving
- National Safety Council: Cognitive distractions while driving
- Decide to drive: Eating while driving
Dangers of Distracted Driving
Individuals who are found to be involved in distracted driving can face a variety of consequences. The fines vary depending on the state that you commit an offense in, and the laws that are in force in that territory. In some states, talking on a hand-held phone is a primary enforcement law, which means you will be charged even if no other offense took place.
If a driver is involved in a more serious accident, in which somebody was injured or killed, he or she may face more serious criminal consequences.
Reoccurring traffic citations can lead to higher insurance premiums. In addition, a person who accumulates too many points can lose driving privileges.
The worse consequence of all is the higher risk of being injured or killed. A distracted driver is much more likely to be involved in a car accident, compared to the one who is attentive to the road and changing traffic conditions.
For more information, visit the following websites:
- HG: Consequences of distracted driving
- Ellsworth Air Force Base: Consequences of distracted driving
- A Law Atlas Project: Distracted driving
Laws Related to Distracted Driving
Talking on a hand-held phone while driving is banned in 14 states and the District of Columbia. No state bans all cellphone use for all drivers, but the use of all cellphones by novice drivers is restricted in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Washington was the first state to pass this law in 2007.
To learn more, visit:
- Governors Highway Safety Association: Distracted driving
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Distracted driving
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Distracted driving
- National Conference of State Legislature: Distracted driving
There are several tips to help you drive distraction-free:
- Stay calm while you are driving a car, stress can be a big distraction.
- If you cannot seem to focus on driving, it is better to pull over and take a break.
- Do not participate in an argument with other passengers while you are driving.
- Ask your passengers to help you with any tasks.
- When you are using a new car, get to know the controls before you start driving.
- Make all adjustments on the car before you start driving (e.g. mirrors, seats, air-conditioning).
- Set up your GPS before driving.
- Study driving directions before you leave.
- Rest, eat, and drink before you begin your journey.
- Use mobile apps that will reply to incoming phone calls and texts for you informing others that you are driving.
- Keep a safe following distance- this leaves you with more time to react.
For more ideas, you can visit:
- UW Medicine Health: Avoid distracted driving
- Colorado Official State Web Portal: Avoid being distracted
There are a number of organizations that are active in the national campaign against distracted driving. They provide a range of resources in the form of publications, reports, and education activities. Some of them are listed below and can provide you with important information on how to stay safe on the road.
- The National Organization for Youth Safety: Distracted driving
- Network of Employers for Traffic Safety: Drive safely work week
- National Safety Council: Distracted driving- What NSC is doing