Driven to distraction

On your morning commute to work or school today, did you notice what the motorists around you were doing? Were they yakking on their cell phone while sipping coffee or eating breakfast? Were they fiddling with the GPS instead of keeping an eye on traffic?

Does any of this sound like your own behavior behind the wheel?

Welcome to the world of distracted driving.

We all do it from time to time and may think nothing of it. After all, it’s not the same as drunken driving, right? Wrong. The sobering reality is that when drivers are distracted and multi-tasking, they’re not paying attention to the road and the consequences can be deadly – not only to them but to others as well.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and law enforcement agencies are getting aggressive about increasing public awareness of the risks of distracted driving. This week a new national video, “Faces of Distracted Driving,” was released. Among the real-life stories: Eric Okerbloom, 19, who was killed when a texting truck driver slammed into his bicycle at 60 mph. Ashley Johnson, 16, who was texting behind the wheel when she crossed the center line and fatally crashed head-on into a pickup truck. Joe Teater, 12, who died when a driver talking on a cell phone ran a red light and crashed into the vehicle in which he was a passenger.

Similar safety messages are being shared all month long during April, Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Here in Minnesota, the Department of Public Safety estimates that some form of distraction is a factor in at least 20 percent of crashes each year – the equivalent of 70 deaths and 350 injuries. It’s worth noting that these numbers are conservative, since it can be difficult to determine the extent to which distraction may have contributed to a crash.

Some facts to consider:

– There are three main types of driver distraction: visual, or taking your eyes off the road; manual, or taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive, or taking your mind off the task at hand. Examples of distractions include the obvious – texting, talking on the phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers – as well as the less obvious, such as daydreaming or driving while angry or upset.

– According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving was a factor in crashes that killed 5,474 people and injured 448,000 in the U.S. in 2009.

– Distracted driving appears to be increasing. The percentage of fatalities associated with distracted driving rose from 11 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2009.

– Drivers in their 20s and younger are the most likely to be involved in a fatal crash associated with distracted driving.

– Using a cell phone while driving is the single biggest source of driver distraction. Among drivers in their 20s or younger, however, texting is the main distraction. Some studies, in fact, have found that people who text while driving are up to 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers who aren’t texting. According to research carried out at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, drivers take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds while sending or reading a text. At 55 mph, that’s long enough to travel the length of a football field.

Is it safer to use a hands-free device that allows you to keep both hands on the wheel? Studies have yielded somewhat conflicting results but the consensus seems to be that telephone conversations while driving, whether they involve a hand-held or hands-free device, can have significant potential for cognitive distraction. Some of the research has found that when drivers are talking on the phone, their reaction time is slowed to the same level as having a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration.

Although many of us are used to multi-tasking and might think we’re good enough or experienced enough to multi-task behind the wheel, the evidence suggests otherwise. Driving a car is multi-tasking, involving dozens of continuous micro-judgments and micro-decisions: What’s my speed? Am I staying in my lane? Why is the driver ahead of me slowing down? Is the traffic light about to turn red? Is that car or truck about to coast through a stop sign?

(If you really want to test your skills, try this interactive quiz from the New York Times. It was a lot more challenging than I ever thought it would be.)

It might seem quaint that years ago, there was debate about whether it was safe to install radios in cars so drivers could listen to the radio while on the road. These days, the radio is the least of it. Drivers in the 21st century have far more distractions than ever, from their navigation system to their mp3 player, video system and the Internet. In a hurry-up society that prizes speed and productivity, many drivers also have come to regard windshield time as wasted time and consequently try to fill it with tasks such as talking on the phone, rather than concentrating on their driving, the traffic and road conditions.

I don’t think I’d want to give up the sound system in my car, and I doubt most people are willing to throw away their cell phone or the electronic gadgets in their vehicle. There are ways, though, to use this technology that don’t interfere with the task of driving. Now put away that BlackBerry and pay attention to the road.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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