Everyone knows distracted driving is dangerous. However, many of us have only a murky understanding of exactly which behaviors qualify as driving while distracted.
I’m an automotive journalist, and one of the perks of the trade involves enjoying the fun new infotainment technology available in the latest cars. From music to maps, these systems offer features and amenities that capture attention.
I distinctly remember a situation that took place a few years ago. I was tinkering with an unfamiliar infotainment system while driving, trying and failing to change the satellite radio presets. As I jabbed the interface with growing frustration, a voice in my head said: “This is dangerous.”
I tend to listen to that voice.
I realized then and there I was engaging in distracted driving. At that moment it hit me how my actions could have severe consequences for myself and people around me. That experience caused me to set rules for myself regarding my behavior behind the wheel.
When most of us think of distracted driving, we think of two things: talking on the phone and texting. These are certainly common forms of distracted driving in our digital age, but they’re not the only forms. Distracted driving happens to a teenager futzing with his hair in the rearview mirror, or a busy working mom tending to a crying child on the way to school. It happens when we’re wolfing down fast food while driving because our schedule is too packed to allow us to sit down for a proper meal. It happens when we take our focus off the road to have a conversation with a friend seated in the car, or when we punch our destination’s address into our navigation system when we’re already on the way there.
Distracted driving can have profound consequences. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation, distracted driving was responsible for more than 431,000 automobile accidents in 2014 and caused 3,179 fatalities.
We’ve been bombarded with information about how hazardous it is to text while driving, and it’s easy to understand why. Though all types of distracted driving are dangerous, texting while driving is the most treacherous of these activities, since this task requires visual, manual and cognitive attention. Laws have been passed to discourage this behavior, and text messaging for all drivers is banned in 46 states. There is even new technology being developed that could aid police officers in determining whether texting contributed to the cause of an accident.
Still, texting while driving continues to be the cause of many accidents. Most who have episodes of texting while driving don’t set out to break the rules and pose a hazard to others. Many of us justify this life-threatening behavior with rationalizations such as, “I’m only doing it this once, and I’ll be quick—how bad could that possibly be?”
However, that rationalization doesn’t hold up when we understand what happens when we text while behind the wheel. The average text requires us to remove attention from the road for about five seconds. If traveling at 55 mph, five seconds provides enough time to cover the length of a football field. If we stop to thinking about driving down a street the length of a football field with our eyes closed, we can imagine the potential for harm.
Setting certain guidelines can help us avoid falling prey to distracted driving. Obviously, the number one habit to end is texting when we’re behind the wheel. That goes for phone calls, too. (Drivers are banned from using hand-held cell phones in 14 states as well.) A hands-free setup is the safest one to use, but even in these cases, it’s wise to keep phone conversations brief when driving, since all conversations create a certain measure of distraction.
In my case, I never texted or talked on the cell phone while driving because I knew doing so was dangerous. I didn’t have the same feelings about adjusting the radio or MP3 player while the car was in motion. It’s important to realize, though, that anything that takes our attention from the road has the potential to create catastrophe. In certain circumstances, all it takes is a second or two of distraction to create an accident.
Since recognizing the danger posed by fiddling with the stereo while driving, I’ve made it a practice to spend a minute or two making sure everything in the cabin is to my satisfaction before starting the engine. This includes checking to see the stereo and presets are set up to my liking. It also means ensuring the seat and mirrors are properly positioned to help me travel in comfort and safety. Getting our cars organized in this way before each trip is especially useful if we share our vehicles with family members who might have different preferences.
There are other simple adjustments we can make to reduce the prevalence of distracted driving: avoid eating while driving, pull over if any adjustments to the navigation system are needed, and ask passengers to keep rambunctious behavior and loud conversations to a minimum. With small children, sometimes it’s just a matter of learning how to tune them out until we can safely stop the car and tend to their needs. Finally, we can practice safe driving habits by saving our grooming for the bathroom mirror.
If we all make an effort to keep our eyes and focus on the road, we can do our part to reduce the number of automotive accidents every day.
Author: Warren Clarke
Image: Michael Coghlan/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman