Many things distract from driving, not just phones

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin


Published May 3, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

I had a minor car accident last Friday. No one was hurt, no police called, no car towed. And no, I wasn’t texting or talking on my cellphone at the time. I was distracted, however, and that’s what caused the accident.

In my case, I was looking down at the console between the front seats of the car. In just the time it took to glance down and look back up, I managed to get close enough to the pickup truck stopped in the parking lot in front of me to rear-end it. Thank goodness it was a truck and not a person!

The federal government, as you might expect, has a definition for distraction. “Distracted driving is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving,” it says on its website, www.distraction.gov. Distraction includes — but is not limited to — texting, using a cell phone, eating, talking with passengers, grooming, fiddling with the radio, watching a video, and so on. And while all distractions are dangerous, texting is particularly so because it involves visual, manual and cognitive attention.

Consider these statistics, also from www.distraction.gov and from the state of California:

In 2011, some 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers, up about 55 deaths from the year before.

Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted by anything.

Distractions are involved in 80 percent of car crashes and 65 percent of near crashes, according to one study.

If you look back at the list of distractions in the third paragraph and think even for a moment about your own life, you’ll admit that at least some of the time all of us qualify as distracted drivers. If nothing else, we listen to the radio or to a passenger in the car — and when we do so, our brain has less ability to pay attention to the road.

Researchers from Carnegie-Mellon University confirmed, using MRI scanners, that listening to something while driving reduced subjects’ ability to drive well. Photos of the scans show far more of the brain lit up when doing both than while simply driving. In fact, driving while using a cellphone, even without holding the phone, cuts the amount of brain activity devoted to driving about 37 percent.

I guess most of us know that, at least intuitively. If you’re a listener to books on tape while on the road, you’re likely to have had a time when you’ve had to replay something because the road took your attention away from your listening. Conversely, you may have simply missed the turn into the grocery store because you were involved in the book. Either way, your driving skills were clearly not at their best. That’s cognitive distraction.

Now, add texting to that and you can see that you have real problems on your hands. First, you have to look down to text — visual distraction. On average, sending or receiving a text takes 4.6 seconds which, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, leaves you effectively blind for the length of a football field if you’re going 55 mph.

Too, your hands are involved in texting, meaning they’re not fully involved in steering your car — manual distraction. Finally, there’s that cognitive distraction because your brain may be thinking about driving, but it’s also thinking about texting, and like it or not, the brain just isn’t that good at multitasking.

Again, that’s something you know intuitively. How many times have you nodded and agreed with your children about something and almost immediately thereafter wondered what you’d just agreed to?

What’s sort of spooky about all this, as I’ve discovered in the last few days, is that it’s almost impossible for me to drive without some distraction. A glance out the side window at a new business sign is distracted driving, as is tuning the radio, as is talking to my younger daughter if she’s in the car.

I don’t know if it’s possible to drive without distraction, in fact. I do know that it’s possible to make oneself more aware of the things that distract and work to eliminate them or keep them to a minimum. After last week’s experience, I intend to do just that.