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Distracted driving: an avoidable risk

May 11, 2017

Distracted driving ranks near the top of traffic safety concerns for drivers. While cellphone usage is a major factor in distracted driving incidents, it is by no means the only one.

Driver on cell phone

According to a recent National Safety Council (NSC) poll,2 distracted driving ranks near the top of traffic safety concerns for drivers – second only to drunken driving. They are right to be worried. Distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in 2015 alone.3

As many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016 – the most traffic fatalities in nine years4 – and while that startling statistic encompasses much more than distracted driving-related incidents, the NSC’s survey insights include the troubling note that 47 percent of respondents feel comfortable texting either manually or through voice controls while driving.5

While cell phone usage is a major factor in distracted driving incidents, it is by no means the only one.

Causes of distracted driving

Distracted driving is broadly considered to be any activity that takes a driver’s hands off the wheel of the vehicle, draws eyes away from the road or simply takes the mind to another place. Overall cognitive distraction can be a bigger risk than physical distraction alone. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) identifies these as examples of distractions6 that endanger driver, passenger and bystander safety:

  • Texting or talking on a phone
  • Eating and drinking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming
  • Reading, including maps
  • Using a navigation system
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio, or other device

Reaching for something or swatting an insect are also common distractions. Distraction can also be several things at once. For example, “rubbernecking” as you pass a crash not only takes your eyes away from the road, but also creates mental distractions when asking yourself, “What happened?”, “Were there any injuries?” and “Do I know those involved?”

Hands-free distracted driving

According to more than 30 scientific research studies and reports, using hands-free devices is not significantly different from holding a phone in terms of traffic safety,7 regardless of the legality of one use versus the other. Though hands-free devices may eliminate some physical distraction, they may not alleviate cognitive distraction. When a person concentrates on a conversation instead of the road, his or her driving can suffer.

Distracted driving facts

  • The average person reads a text in about 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, a car travels 80 feet every second. Reading a text while driving is like driving the length of a football field blindfolded.8
  • At any given time during daylight hours in the U.S., upward of 660,000 drivers are using their phone or texting.9
  • There were 3,477 fatalities in distraction-affected crashes in 2015, an 8.8 percent increase from 2014.10
  • More than 2 in 3 drivers reported talking on a cell phone while driving within a one-month period and 1 in 3 say they do so regularly.11
  • Drivers using cell phones (handheld or hands-free) fail to see up to 50 percent of their driving environment– a phenomenon known as “inattention blindness.”12

Ways to reduce distracted driving

Plan calls

Establish times when the driver can pull off the road and be available for communications (whether by text, email or telephone).

Ignore the phone

Calls cannot always be scheduled. Establish a culture where allowing callers to leave messages to be returned at the earliest convenience (i.e., when it is safe to do so) is acceptable.

Drive defensively

Defensive driving techniques can provide more time to respond to changing driving conditions.

  • Pre-set temperature and radio controls.
  • Clear windows of frost, ice, snow or debris before driving.
  • Increase following distance (at least four seconds in normal conditions in a sedan and longer in larger vehicles or adverse conditions).13
  • Be aware of what is occurring ahead of the vehicle (scanning 10-15 seconds ahead).14
  • In inclement weather, slow down and allow for increased stopping distances and poor visibility.
  • Deal with distractions in a safe location, while parked.

 

 

References

1.National Safety Council. “2016 Motor Vehicle Deaths Estimated to be Highest in Nine Years.” Accessed 13 April 2017. 
http://www.nsc.org/learn/NSC-Initiatives/Pages/Fatality-Estimates.aspx
2.National Safety Council. Driver Safety Public Opinion Poll. February 2017.
3.National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted Driving home page. Accessed 13 April 2017. 
https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving
4.National Safety Council. “2016 Motor Vehicle Deaths Estimated to be Highest in Nine Years.”
5.National Safety Council. Driver Safety Public Opinion Poll.
6.National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
7.National Safety Council. “Understanding the distracted brain: Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior.” April 2012.
8.Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Distracted Driving flyer. 2012. 
https://www.osha.gov/Publications/3416distracted-driving-flyer.pdf
9. “Driver Electronic Device Use in 2011.” Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. April 2013.
10.National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
11.AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. 2016 Traffic Safety Culture Index. February 2017.
12.National Safety Council. “Understanding the distracted brain: Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior.”
13.Forman, R. “The Four-second Solution to Rear-end Collisions.” Commercial Carrier Journal.
14.State of California Department of Motor Vehicles website. Accessed 24 April 2017.