The Most Dangerous Game: Distracted Driving

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Online

While driving, have you ever: eaten a sandwich? Had a cup of coffee? Had a deep conversation with a friend? Tried to keep two children from fighting? Taken a phone call? Taken off or put on a coat? Fussed with the radio? Sent a text message?

Like most of us, you’ve probably done at least one of these things while driving. Some of these activities, like having a conversation, may appear relatively harmless. Others, such as texting, are more obviously dangerous, not to mention illegal. The truth is, however, that all of these activities can and do lead to distracted driving.

Many of us drive frequently enough that driving comes to seem second nature, more habit than something that demands our full attention. However, driving, even in ideal conditions on familiar roads, always has the potential to be a hazardous pursuit. In fact, it’s often on the most familiar roads that we need to pay the most attention. This is because our brains easily become accustomed to routine so that, driving a familiar route, we see what we expect to see. It’s thus really easy to miss new hazards or obstacles: construction work, fallen trash cans, pedestrians, children, bicyclists, etc. Our full attention is required, no matter where we are driving.

I’ve occasionally noticed that, on both long highway drives and short routine drives in my neighborhood, I go for a length of time without consciously “seeing” what’s around me, because I’m lost in my own thoughts. I’ve always been a notorious daydreamer, and so, over the years, have had to condition myself to keep looking at the road and surroundings, rather than getting lost in my own mind. This is my own particular brand of distracted driving; however, there are many different causes of driver distraction.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distraction as any activity that takes the driver’s full attention away from the road. There are three kinds of distractions:

  • VISUAL: something that causes the driver to look away from the road (turning to talk to someone, check the radio station, read a text message.)
  • MANUAL: something that takes a hand off the steering wheel (eating, drinking, answering a phone call.)
  • COGNITIVE: anything that takes the mind away from the road (being in the grip of strong emotions, daydreaming, having a conversation.)

All of these distractions are dangerous. However, a study sponsored by a group of major carmakers found that, of all distractions, visual ones are the most dangerous. It took many hours of sophisticated and expensive research to reach a basic conclusion: keep your eyes on the road.

Recently, distracted driving has become a major topic of concern, as the use of cell phones and other hand-held electronic devices continues to rise. In a recent study, 71% of adults between the ages of 18 and 49 admitted to using a cell phone while driving. A University of Utah study recently concluded that, whether hands free or not, the cognitive distraction produced by a phone conversation delays a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol level of .08%, the legal limit for driving.

It’s tempting to think that one can get away with the occasional distraction, like answering that really important call or putting on make-up in the car to save time. However, distractions cause up to 25% of all car crashes annually, about 4,300 crashes a day. In 2008 alone, distraction-related accidents resulted in 6,000 fatalities. Even if you are willing to put your own life on the line by texting or eating a sandwich, don’t risk the lives of other drivers and pedestrians. Also, note that a number of states are starting to institute bans on cell phone use and/or texting while driving. You can find an updated list of state regulations regarding cell phone use here:

So, you now know the importance of focused driving and the terrible consequences of not paying attention. Now, what can you do to be a more focused driver?

  1. First, make a real commitment to driving attentively. Take a zero-tolerance policy towards your use of distractions.
  2. Next, notice what your “bad habits” are and try to minimize their impact. For example, I love to listen to the radio while I drive. To avoid having to look down to change the station, I’ve preset my favorite stations so that I can flip through them using the track changer on my steering wheel. I can listen to the music I like without taking my eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel. Creating mix CDs or MP3 playlists, and then sticking to a CD (or set of CDS) or playlist throughout the drive are other great ways to minimize this particular distraction.
  3. Change your attitude toward your car. Don’t view it as a mobile home/work station/entertainment center. It’s a vehicle meant to get you from one place to the other. Eat before you leave home or after you arrive. If need be, try to get going a few minutes earlier, so that you have time to do your hair and make-up, make necessary phone calls, write e-mails, etc. etc. before you depart or once you’ve parked.
  4. Most importantly, turn off or silence your phone before you start driving and put it somewhere out of reach. This way, you’ll resist the temptation to receive calls or read texts. You could also invest in drive-safe software for your phone. These programs, which can be automatically activated when you start your car, will respond to incoming calls and texts with a message that alerts others to the fact that you are unavailable and will call them back when you reach your destination.
  5. Also, be careful not to let your mind wander too much. Keep your eyes on the road and don’t drive when overly fatigued. Be careful about driving when in the grip of strong emotions, a topic I’ll cover in greater detail in my next entry.
  6. Finally, if you are a young driver or are the parent of a young driver, try to set a good example for your peers and/or children. Drivers ages 16 to 25 are the most likely to engage in distracting behaviors, particularly texting, which, as a combined visual, cognitive, and manual distraction, is perhaps the most dangerous form of distraction of all. Since these drivers are also the least experienced drivers on the road, this is a very risky combination. Discuss these issues with the young drivers in your life and lead by example.

For more information on this important issue, check out the official distracted driving website of the US Department of Transportation:

You can find out more about cell phone and driving at a page run by the Federal Communications Commission:

Finally, for a more personal look at the impact of distracted driving, check out the summary of a recent Oprah episode on the topic:

If you’re still unconvinced about the perils of distracted driving, these stories will likely change your mind.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.


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