Pay Attention!

The great peril on our roads is driver distraction. Simple steps will ensure you don't become distracted while driving, with potentially tragic results.

Did you know that if you are driving at a speed of 65 miles per hour, you are traveling at approximately 100 feet per second? At this speed, if you were to look down for a few seconds, you would travel the length of a football field. A lot can happen in a very short time. When motor vehicle crashes are reconstructed, it is not uncommon to find that if a driver could have a quarter of a second of time back, he or she would not have been involved in the collision. A quarter of a second more, and the driver would have arrived home safely that day.

There are few things in life that can change so many lives as quickly as a vehicle crash. Collisions that take mere seconds to occur may cause hardships that are not recovered from in a lifetime.

Most people consider themselves to be safe drivers. But can you improve? Have you ever driven to a destination and, after you arrive, you can’t remember anything about the drive? Have you ever traveled through an intersection controlled by a traffic signal and then couldn’t recall whether the light was green or red? Driving becomes second nature to us, so we have a tendency to do other things when we are behind the wheel. This is not to say that you are a “bad” driver. What this indicates is that driving is a skill and, as with any other skill, you need to work at it in order to be good at it.

There is no magic involved with safe driving. The key to it is actually fairly simple—pay attention. It should be common sense that when we get behind the wheel, we need to focus on our driving; for something that seems so simple, you wouldn’t think this would pose a problem. Statistics prove otherwise.

Every year in the United States, there are approximately 6.15 million reported motor vehicle collisions. From those reported crashes, 2.7 million people are injured and approximately 44,000 people lose their lives. That equates to approximately 120 people dying every day on our roadways. To say that we have a problem is an understatement.

Many of the crashes that occur each year can be traced directly to driver distraction. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted a study that indicates driver distraction is the root cause of approximately 25 percent of all crashes. Other studies place this number at a much higher level. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute conducted a study that showed that as many as 80 percent of all crashes are caused by driver distraction.

As these two vastly different study results indicate, it is difficult to actually determine whether a crash occurred because of driver distraction. Drivers typically will not admit that the reason they crashed was because they weren’t paying attention. No matter what the study results show, it is safe to conclude that distracted driving leads to crashes.

All a driver needs to do to witness distracted driving is to observe the activities of his or her fellow motorists. Drivers are eating, reading, grooming, correcting their children, riding with their pets on their laps, using their computers, watching movies, talking on their cell phones, and texting, to name just a few. These distractions are commonplace and are quite often accepted driving practices. If you are a safe and diligent driver, you should be concerned about what is happening around you. If you are one of the members of the distracted class, you need to get your act together.

The following offers information regarding some common driver distractions and provides recommendations regarding how to deal with them.

Cell Phones
Did you know that if you talk on a cell phone while driving, you are as likely to crash as a person who has a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent? That is the assumed level of intoxication in all 50 states in the United States and all of the provinces of Canada. Numerous studies have verified these findings. These studies have also shown that the use of a hands-free device does not make it safer. Holding the phone isn’t the problem; it is the distraction of the conversation while driving that is unsafe.

Some will argue that talking to a passenger is no different than talking on a hands-free phone. All of the studies have shown that talking on a phone takes more of your cognitive concentration than talking to a person in your vicinity. If for no other reason, this is true because if the passenger you are talking to notices something unsafe, he may make you aware of it or at the very least will stop distracting you. Whereas if you are on the phone, you will continue to be distracted right up to the point of your collision.

Build time into your schedule so that you can make your calls while you are safely and legally parked. Let incoming calls go directly to voicemail and let people know that you won’t answer the phone while you are driving. Tell them that you will return their calls as soon as you are safely parked.

Eating causes distraction. An even greater distraction is created when something spills. When this occurs, all attention to driving is lost. If the only time you have to eat is when you are driving, there is another area of concern that needs to be addressed: the overloaded schedule.

Build time into your schedule to allow yourself a few minutes to eat. Be honest with yourself. How long does it take to eat a sandwich and drink a beverage? Is it worth risking a crash for the few minutes you save by eating while driving?

It is not unusual to see men shaving and women applying make-up while driving. There have even been reports of people brushing their teeth, cutting their hair, and clipping their toenails while driving. Where does it end?

Here is a suggestion to all drivers who feel compelled to groom themselves while driving: Get up earlier! Your grooming should be done while you are stationary in your bathroom. For one, you will look nicer. Two, you greatly reduce your risk of being in a distraction-related crash. It truly is win-win.

Children can be a major source of distraction while driving. There are numerous reported crashes that occurred when parents turned around to correct their children or assist them with dropped items. Many of these crashes have ended tragically.

Teach your children from an early age that distractions in a vehicle must be kept to a minimum. If distractions from children reach a level where intervention is required, stop the vehicle in a safe area and then take care of the situation.

Mental Distractions
Quite often driver distraction does not have to involve a physical activity. Drivers can become lost in their thoughts and become totally oblivious to what is happening to their driving. Distraction may also present itself in the form of emotions. Anger, feeling down, or feeling happy can lead to distracted driving.

In order to correct these “mental” distractions, you must first realize they are occurring. Test yourself: At any given point in time while you are driving, see if you are able to describe the vehicles that are around you. If you can’t, you are not scanning properly. You should rotate your vision constantly by scanning ahead, to the sides, and behind you.

Another way to combat mental distractions is to verbalize your surroundings while you are driving. This may sound a little strange, but it can be effective. If you find your mind wandering, verbalize what you see as it relates to the driving task. For instance, vocalize what you see as you scan ahead, to the sides, and behind you. The idea is that, in order to speak about something, you must first think about it. If you speak about your driving, it will force you to think about your driving. This can help you to regain your attention.

It is also very important to control your emotions while driving. If you become upset while you are behind the wheel, do not take these emotions out on your driving. If somebody does something that annoys you, let it go. If you allow the actions of other drivers to influence the way you drive, you are relinquishing the control of your vehicle to that person. If another driver wants to drive stupid, let him. Rise above it.

It’s Your Decision
This article urges you to stay focused and drive safely. Ultimately, it’s your decision. What you need to consider is cause and effect. Your driving actions may affect more than just you. Don’t be so selfish that you don’t consider your loved ones, your fellow motorists, and their loved ones. You don’t want to be the person that causes your family or another family to have to endure a hardship. You have a decision to make: Are you going to stay focused and safe? Or are you going to drive distracted and unsafe? I hope you make the right decision.

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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