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Driving Distractions

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author photo by Autotrader January 2008

Our lives are so busy that driving is far from the only thing we do in our cars. And since we are often in them for a long time, we now have lots of ways to entertain ourselves and make the drive easier. However, all of these habits and conveniences can be a huge distraction from the real purpose at hand: getting safely to your destination. Sometimes, these distractions can be deadly. According to an April 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, nearly 80 percent of crashes involve some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the crash.


Hands on the Wheel

You know that both of your hands are supposed to be on the wheel at “ten and two,” but do most people really do that in practice? Maybe you’re running late in the morning, so you grab a granola bar and a cup of coffee on the way out. You didn’t have time to fix your hair or apply your mascara, so you bring along your brush and your makeup bag. On the way out, you get a text from a friend that you need to return right away. Plus, you forgot to read the agenda for your early morning meeting. When will you do all of these things? While you’re sitting in traffic, of course. But in just a few seconds of inattention, you can find yourself in an accident.

Maybe you realize that eating, texting, reading and grooming are all tasks that need to wait until you’re not in the car. You probably talk on your cell phone while you’re driving, though. According to the NHTSA/VTTI study, dialing a “handheld device” triples the risk of being in an accident or near-accident. And surely you change the station and volume controls on your stereo or adjust the heat or air conditioning while you’re driving. What if your kids are bickering over a toy in the backseat and you turn around to solve the problem? All of these actions are pretty common and all of them can also lead to accidents.


Enjoy the Silence

OK, so we’ve established that taking your hands off the road and looking at your cell phone is a bad idea. What about another sense that you need to drive — hearing? In addition to seeing what’s going on around your car and able to control it, you need to pay attention to the sounds. You might hear the honking of other cars’ horns around you or the wail of an ambulance siren. If your stereo is turned up really loud or you’re deep in conversation (with either someone on a cell phone or in the car), you might miss these important sounds. The voice on your navigation system can even be a distraction if it’s too loud.


It’s in Your Head

Now your eyes are on the road, your hands are on the wheel, and your music is low enough for you to hear sounds outside of your car. Another important component of driving is literally all in your head. Driving defensively means being completely aware, so you need to have your full attention devoted to it. It’s easy for your mind to wander when you’re sitting in traffic — after all, how much thought does it take to switch your foot from the gas to the brake pedal? But if you’re spacing out or busy thinking about everything on your to-do list, then you may not be paying enough attention to your driving. A safe driver is also a well-rested one: drowsiness contributes to 22.16 percent of crashes and near-accidents.


Outside Interference

In addition to all of these distractions inside the car, there can often be a lot of outside distractions. Sitting in traffic for a long time without any discernible cause is frustrating, so when you do come upon a cause — such as an accident — it’s tempting to slow down and check it out. This is called rubbernecking, and often rubbernecking, not the actual accident, is the reason for the slow traffic.

Do your part and concentrate on the driving. If you have a passenger, he can always check out what’s going on for you. Also, flashy cars, billboards and that new store that just opened may catch your eye, but avoid the desire to focus on them instead of the road.


Dismiss Distractions

Let’s look at more ways to keep distractions to a minimum. If you must eat something while driving, make it small finger food that you can eat fairly quickly. Better yet, build in enough time to eat at home, at work or at a restaurant (instead of going through a drive-thru). Or just park somewhere long enough to eat. The same goes for grooming and reading — take care of them once you’re parked at your destination.

Using a hands-free setup for your cell phone, keeping your calls short and keeping them to a minimum will lessen your risk of getting too distracted. And when you have passengers in the car, make sure they understand that you need to focus on driving. If you need to attend to children, simply pull over first. Carry through with the old parental threat of “Do you want me to stop this car?”

As for operating your car’s controls, try to learn to do it by touch so you don’t have to glance over. If you have someone in the car in the passenger seat, let him be in charge of the stereo and environmental controls. Consider features like steering-wheel control buttons when shopping for a new car.

If you feel your mind wandering while driving, bring it back to attention by checking all of your mirrors and examining what’s going on around you. Finally, the best solution for a sleepy driver is to pull over and get some sleep. If that isn’t practical, stop and have a quick snack or get something to drink to get your focus back. If you’re on a road trip, getting a few more miles down the road isn’t worth the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, so stop at a hotel. Take turns driving if you have a passenger.

When you’re in the car, there’s nothing more important than concentrating on driving. Just one quick lapse in judgment can lead to an accident, so why take the chance? Save everything else for when you arrive at your actual destination. Wouldn’t you rather be there than in your car, anyway?


Sources:

CNN.com: It’s official: Distracted Drivers are Dangerous
http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/04/20/driving.study/index.html

Driver Distractions: Don’t be a Statistic
http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/brochures/fast_facts/ffdl28.htm

NHTSA: An Overview of The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study and Findings
http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-12/100Car_ESV05summary.pdf

Road and Travel Magazine: Avoid Driving Distractions
http://www.roadandtravel.com/safetyandsecurity/distractions.htm

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Driving Distractions - Autotrader