April Is Distracted Driving Awareness Month
Behind the wheel is no place to multitask!
University of Utah researchers used special equipment during road tests to learn more about the effects of distraction. (Photo: AAA)
You see those folks on the road all the time. They're talking on the phone, putting on makeup, shaving, driving with a pet on their lap, eating a messy burger, maybe even taking a selfie—yes, for some of us, it's tempting to multitask while we're on a long highway trip or creeping along in traffic.
But did you know that distracted driving is a close runner-up to drunk driving when it comes to auto accidents? Last year, almost 500,000 people were injured and more than 3,000 people were killed when drivers didn't fully attend to the driving task. The problem is so serious that the U.S. government recently created a website, www.distraction.gov, to discourage this dangerous habit.
Safety experts have long reminded us to keep our eyes and minds on the road. And now, the problem is all the worse with the advent of today's technologies such as smartphones, smart watches, Google Glass and dashboard infotainment systems—all of which make it more likely that we'll try to multitask on the road. In February 2016, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that 70 percent of drivers talk on the phone while driving, 30 percent of them quite often. Almost half report reading a text message or email at least occasionally.
Even seniors, who already face challenges to safe driving, such as changes to vision, hearing, flexibility and rapidity of reflexes, are likely to talk on the phone while driving or to use dashboard features that take their eyes from the road.
Driving safety experts from government agencies, foundations and universities say that raising awareness of this growing problem is the first step. Here are six important things to know:
A moment of inattentiveness can cause an accident. AAA experts say, "Drivers who take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds can double their risk of being in a crash." And Stony Brook University expert Carlos Vidal says, "Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at the rate of 55 mph, that's the equivalent of covering the length of a football field blindfolded." It's best to remove temptation. Turn off your phone while you're driving, silence it, or put it in the trunk. Look into an app or feature that will disable texting and phone calling when you're driving and/or send an autoreply that you're temporarily unavailable.
Hands-free doesn't mean safe. Most of us know that it's dangerous to take our eyes off the road to interact with an electronic device—but researcher Jessa Engelberg of the University of California, San Diego reports that while 90 percent of people who use a hands-free cellphone in the car believe they are safe, in reality, "Talking on a hands-free phone increases the risk of crashing to the same degree as driving at the legal alcohol limit." The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that states include hands-free devices in the ban against using a cellphone while driving.
Today's dashboard systems can make the situation worse. Experts say infotainment features, including speech-to-text and text-to-speech interfaces, can be tremendously distracting; according to the National Safety Council, voice-to-text communication is even more distracting than texting by hand! AAA's president Robert L. Darbelnet warned, "There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies. It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free."
Talking on the phone is much more distracting than chatting with a passenger. If you are having an argument or other intense conversation with a passenger while you drive, it's best to pull over. But experts tell us that under normal conditions, passengers in a car can see what the driver is seeing, and they instinctively modulate their conversation accordingly. Said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, a top expert in distracted driving, "The difference between a cellphone conversation and passenger conversation is that the passenger is in the vehicle and knows what the traffic conditions are like, and they help the driver by … pointing out hazards." On the other hand, the person on the other end of a cellphone conversation has no idea that a truck suddenly braked right in front of you!
What about music, radio programs or books on tape? AAA found that these activities were not very distracting, though seniors who find multitasking more challenging might want to turn off extraneous sound. If you're going to listen to music or other audio, be sure to get everything ready while the car is still in park to avoid fiddling with your entertainment system while driving. And while you're at it, take care of other pre-trip tasks, such as putting on your sunglasses, adjusting your seat and mirrors, and, of course, putting on your seatbelt.
Employers must do their part. Many companies expect their employees to take calls while driving. Experts say that workers should instead be discouraged from doing so. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation have created guidelines to help companies establish a company policy for reducing distracted driving by encouraging employees to pull over to take a call, or to put the phone in the trunk.
The National Safety Council provides resources and information for Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
AAA offers extensive information about distracted driving, and maintains a state-by-state compilation of distracted driving laws. AAA also offers information on senior driving safety.
Distraction.gov has information for drivers, employers and community groups.
Decide to Drive (www.decidetodrive.org) is a joint project of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The site offers a set of short, humorous spots on common distractions such as shaving, putting on makeup, eating, drinking hot beverages and the all-too-familiar taking a selfie.