Driving to Distraction

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, your simple drive to the dentist goes awry when you get rear-ended by a teenage driver. What are the chances the other driver was distracted while driving? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 20 percent of teens respond to a text message while driving (Distraction.gov). And distracted driving accidents are on the rise.

But is distracted driving really new? Since the Model T, drivers have been talking to their passengers, fixing their hair in the mirror, and adjusting the radio on their way to work. So why is texting while driving different? Texting requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention, and therefore, it is the most dangerous distraction facing drivers today. On average, it takes a driver 4.6 seconds to respond to a text. At 55 miles per hour, that is the distance of a football field all while not looking at the road (NHTSA Report, Sept. 2009). In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that more than 3,300 people died and 387,000 suffered injuries due to distracted driving accidents (NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, April 2013).

One study by University of Utah researchers compared texting while driving to driving drunk (Strayer et al., 2006). When drivers were talking on either a handheld or hands-free cell phone, their braking reactions were delayed. They were also involved in more traffic accidents than when they were not conversing on a cell phone.

What can you do to keep your family safe? First, educate the drivers in your house about the dangers of texting while driving. Arm yourself with facts from Distraction.gov or educational videos. Second, set a good example — don’t text while driving. When you start the car, turn off your phone and put it out of reach. If you have the phone on, then pull over and respond or ask your passenger to respond for you. Drive hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, and your phone off!

Strayer DL, Drews FA, Crouch DJ. 2006. A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver. Human Factors, 48: 381-391.