The Dangers of Driver Distractions

The list is endless: dialing a hand held cell phone, conversing on a cell phone, operating a PDA or reaching for it, eating, drinking, smoking, daydreaming, “rubbernecking”, applying makeup, combing hair or brushing teeth, removing or putting on jewelry to name only a few. We’ve all seen it. People engaged in secondary tasks while they drive cars and trucks on our country’s public roads and highways. Driver inattention is a leading cause of vehicle crashes. The situation only seems to be getting worse.

Does it really matter whether you take a few seconds to run a comb through your hair or dial a friend’s phone number while you drive down the road? The answer is yes, it does. Studies conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demonstrate a direct relationship between driver inattention and automobile accidents. Just glancing away from the roadway for more than two seconds can increase your risk of a crash or near crash at least two fold over normal, attentive driving. Engaging in more complex visual or manual tasks while driving can raise your crash risk even higher. It goes without saying that driving while drowsy is always dangerous and increases the risk of an accident.

Remember, however, not every glance away from the road ahead is dangerous. Quick looks into rear or side view mirrors to check for approaching vehicles or other obstacles can actually decrease your risk of a crash. The motor vehicle driver who periodically scans his surroundings, specifically looking for potential hazards, is a safer driver.

Drivers have been primping, smoking and eating behind the wheel ever since motor vehicles took to the roads over a century ago. Why is there so much fuss over inattentive drivers now? Within the last two decades, cell phone use has increased to the point where there are now over 250 million people in the United States who are wireless communication subscribers. Many of these subscribers regularly use their cell phones while they drive. After all, most everyone wants to stay in touch with friends, relatives and associates. Teenage and young adult drivers are especially addicted to the new technology. They keep their ears glued to cell phones and spend lots of time text messaging friends. Unfortunately, all this friendly communication translates into driver inattention, and it comes at a price.

A 2007 Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. survey of 1200 drivers found that 73% of the drivers surveyed routinely talk on cell phones while driving. This high incidence of cell phone traffic means there are more distracted drivers traveling our highways. The more inattentive drivers there are on the road, the more frequently these drivers will be involved in accidents. This doesn’t mean talking on a cell phone while driving is the most hazardous of driver distractions. Drivers who reach for falling objects like a coffee cup or who open a glove compartment are actually at greater risk of a car crash. Nonetheless, driving while you are conducting a cell phone conversation is risky business. A recent University of Utah report declared that the impairment level for persons driving while talking on cell phones is comparable to that of motorists driving while intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit.

It is tempting to conclude that carrying on a cell phone conversation is safer than handling and dialing a cell phone. After all, once the phone connection is made and the conversation begins, you’re keeping your eyes on the road ahead, aren’t you? The answer to this question is “no”. Studies show it is not just the physical act of reaching for the phone and dialing that raises the risk of involvement in a crash. It is also the mental concentration that comes with both listening to someone speak to you and formulating your verbal response. When you’re absorbed in a phone chat with a friend, your mind is focused on the conversation, not the road. Despite this reality, however, states are taking action to ban hand-held cell phone use based on the rationale that hands-free cell phone conversations are safer. In July, 2008, California will begin enforcing a new law banning hand-held cell phone use by non-commercial drivers. The states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. have enacted similar legislation.

At present, these states are in the minority. Although more and more state legislatures are taking action to curb cell phone conversations by drivers, few states ban cell phone use altogether. Where there are bans, certain professions or jurisdictions are sometimes exempted. Nevertheless, more and more states are identifying specific categories of drivers for special regulation. Because cell phone use and text messaging is highest among teenage drivers, states have become pro-active in dealing with this age group. Seventeen states, including Virginia, Texas, and New Jersey plus Washington, D.C. regulate cell phone use by novice drivers depending on their age and/or whether or not they have a learner’s permit or a provisional license. Fifteen states prohibit cell phone use by school bus drivers.

To date, legislators in Virginia have focused only on cell phone use by young drivers. Enacted in 2007, Virginia Code Section 46.2-334.01 provides that, “except in a driver emergency or when a vehicle is lawfully parked or stopped, the holder of a provisional driver’s license shall not operate a motor vehicle on the highways of the Commonwealth while using any cellular telephone or any other wireless telecommunications device, regardless of whether such device is or is not hand-held.” This provisional driver’s license restriction expires on the holder’s 18th birthday. Violation of the statute constitutes a traffic infraction. Multiple offenses may result in suspension of the juvenile’s privilege to drive for a period not to exceed six months, in addition to other penalties a judge might impose.

Of course, it is not only cell phone conversations that put motorists and others at risk. When a driver is drawn into conversation with his passengers, for example, his ability to react quickly to trouble on the roadway ahead is also impaired. He is likely to brake more slowly and to follow other vehicles too closely. The bottom line is that, although cell phone use is a common driver distraction which raises the risk of an accident occurring, drivers who habitually engage in other inattention-related activities are also likely to be involved in crashes.

Never decide whether or not to engage in any distracting activity based on what you perceive to be its level of danger. In other words, don’t reassure yourself by thinking it isn’t as dangerous to make a hands-free cell phone call as it is to eat a cheeseburger while you’re at the wheel. Remember that a few seconds of driver inattention for whatever reason can lead just as easily to a collision with a Mack truck as it can lead to a crash with a Dodge Neon. It simply depends on which vehicle is in your vicinity at the moment you become distracted. In the end, it is the severity of the injuries you and others sustain in a crash that really matter, not the degree of danger you may attach to the diversion. Stay safe. Watch where you’re going!