An Intense Focus on Distracted Driving

Introduction

Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of traffic deaths and injuries each year. The risks are especially high for teenagers.

Not surprisingly technology is playing a key role. It is simultaneously making the problem worse and better. In this article we walk through the latest statistics, research, technologies and advanced prevention strategies in 2019.

While there is a long way to go, there is also room for hope.

What is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving is anything that diverts your attention away from driving. Stated another way, it is operating a moving vehicle with less than your full attention.

Safety experts break distraction down into three categories:

  • Manual – you take your hands off the steering wheel
  • Visual – you take your eyes off the road
  • Cognitive – you mind wanders away from driving the vehicle.

There are many specific types of distractions, and they often overlap.

Venn Diagram of Types of Distracted Driving 

Source: Adapted from AAA Exchange.

The above illustration is not exhaustive. Learning which behaviors are the most dangerous is a helpful exercise.

Keeping this knowledge top of mind makes it easier to form habits, like not texting while driving.

8 Distracted Driving Statistics Everyone Should Know in 2019

Most people know that operating cell phones while driving is a problem. What most don’t conceptualize is exactly how big of a risk they are taking, not only for themselves, but also for passengers and pedestrians.

8 Key Distracted Driving Statistics

 

Is the Answer More Technology?

Without question technology has greatly increased the distractions for drivers. In the old days, the only distractions were car radios and a few instrument gauges with needles that rarely moved.

Technology That Distracts

With the advent of smart phones and touch screens in particular, car technology applications have exploded. Today, the biggest distractors include:

  • Cell phones (44% of people admit to texting while driving)
  • Infotainment systems
  • Built in navigation
  • Voice activation systems
  • Tablets and other hand held devices
  • USB plug-ins, etc.

Is the solution to mitigating technology-induced distracted driving, “more technology?” The answer is almost certainly “yes.”


Technology That Prevents or Lessens Distraction

The technology that is the foundation for autonomous cars in the future can help with distracted drivers today.

Among the most promising include:

  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Automatic braking
  • Blind spot detection
  • Collision avoidance
  • Lane departure warnings.

If you are able to afford these systems, they have proven to be very valuable. Why? Because they provide early warning and correct driving mistakes, even if you’re distracted.


These systems don’t care if you’re looking at the radio or engaged in conversation.Ian Reagan, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.


Adaptive Cruise Control. Primarily designed for use on highways, adaptive cruise control (ACC) is becoming more common.  Using front mounted radar, ACC speeds up or slows down to keep pace with the vehicle in front of you. Instead of maintaining a constant speed, it maintains a programable interval, such as 2, 3 or 4 seconds. ACC is almost always paired with Collision Avoidance and Automatic Braking.

Automatic Braking. Designed as a pre-crash technology, Automatic Braking reduces the severity of crashes when driver attention lapses. Basically, if a collision is sensed and judged imminent, the brakes are automatically applied to reduce speed and reduce impact.

Blind Spot Detection. Uses multiple sensors to detect when another vehicle is in a driver’s blind spot. Usually a low key alert, such as a chime or light indicator, will warn the driver. Blind spots are tricky even for fully alert drivers and doubly so for distracted drivers.

Collision Avoidance. These systems also use multiple sensors to determine if there is danger of a collision. They detect not only other vehicles, but also animals, pedestrians, and road barriers. If a collision is detected, pre-programmed actions kick in. These can include driver warnings, automatic braking, and tensioning seat belts.

Lane Departure. There are actually two systems here. Lane departure simply warns the driver if a vehicle is accidentally drifting into another lane. Lane assistance systems go a step further and take corrective action without driver input (e.g., gently steers the car back onto the original path).

Originally, these were high-end features on high-end cars, such as Mercedes. Now they are available on most makes and models. Aftermarket options are also available.

Future Research and Technology

Many universities feel that the only way to solve this problem is by combining classic knowledge of crash and injury prevention with human and adolescent psychology and neuroscience.

The goal is to learn about decision making. For example, people don’t truly multi-task, they instead “serial-task.” That means if you text while driving, your attention is focused on texting, not equally split between the two activities.  That in turn, causes distraction and accidents.

Once researchers have a better picture how the brain works, they will be able to provide better teaching and instructions. To see all this in action, here is a video from Yale’s DriveSim Lab.

Basic and Advanced Tips for Preventing Distraction in 2019

There is a lot of advice on the internet about how to avoid distracted driving. Most of this advice is the “don’t” variety, as in “don’t text while driving.” While this is undoubtedly good advice, it rarely results in drivers changing their behaviors.

Below is our comprehensive take on both the basics and advanced strategies.

Ten Basic Tips 

Let’s start with the basic advice first. We’ve combed several sources, and here are the most commonly cited things we can and should do.

  1. Do not use your cell phone unless it is an absolute emergency. Texting and following navigation apps are more dangerous than talking, but all are risks. Best practice is to silence and stow your phone in a bag or the center console.
  2. Avoid reaching for objects falling off the dashboard or passenger/rear seats. Doing so takes both your hands and eyes off the wheel. Store any loose items or gear before driving.
  3. Secure pets and kids in their proper zones in the car to minimize the risk of them distracting you.
  4. Do not eat or drink while driving, especially in high traffic.
  5. Finish dressing and all personal grooming at home. This is another “hands and eyes off the wheel” risk.
  6. Limit the number of passengers and/or level of activity when driving. It is not always about numbers. Two kids and an excitable pet may provide more distractions than five adults.
  7. Fully program any navigation or GPS systems before departing.
  8. Avoid driving when bothered for whatever reason. This includes being sad or angry or even having a full bladder.
  9. Do not multi-task. Remember the brain sequentially serial-tasks. If you engage in a second task while driving, say adjusting the infotainment system, the brain focuses its attention on that task not driving.
  10. Related to #9, if a task is urgent, pull to the side of the road.

There are literally hundreds of these lists. A couple of the better ones are here and here.

Four Advanced Tips

Everyone knows they should eat their vegetables, consume less sugar and exercise more. How many people do this? Probably less than 20%.

It is the same with distracted driving. Most everyone knows by now not to text and drive, yet they still do. Why? One reason is because of addiction.


If you are addicted to your cell phone, the addiction does not stop just because you get behind the wheel of a car.


While universities and tech companies are working on the problem, what should you do in the interim? Let’s see what science and technology tells us.

#1 Break Your Cell Phone Addiction. As we noted earlier, cell phones are the main culprit for distracted driving. With stats like average time spent on cell phones has ballooned from 18 minutes in the pre-smart phone era to 3 hours, and 70% of emails are checked within 6 seconds, we might just be addicted.

The signs of addiction are very recognizable. You:

  • Check your cell phone in the middle of the night or right when you wake up
  • Are highly anxious when separated from your cell phone
  • Use your phone even when face to face with other people
  • Constantly use the phone in the bathroom.

These are just a few all too familiar indicators.

There are many scientifically supported tricks to begin to break cell phone addiction. Here a few to provide a flavor:

  • When setting goals, use the right language. Saying “I don’t use my cell phone when driving” versus “I can’t use my cell phone” can increase follow through from 10% to 80%
  • “Proximity is destiny,” don’t take your phone with you to dinner or bed
  • Make your phone less interesting, e.g., turn off notifications, cull addictive apps, use a monochrome screen
  • Take a phone vacation. Go 24 hours without using it.

Breaking addiction is beyond the scope of this article. Just know there are a lot of scientifically grounded resources available. Including these good pieces in Success, New York Times and Fast Company.

#2 Employ Advanced Driver Assistance Technology. When shopping for a new car, be sure to include as much driver assistance technology as your budget allows. If you have an older model car, several good aftermarket options exist. Generally, these take three forms: dash cams with assistance features like collision warning; navigation systems with similar features; or purpose-built driver assistance kits. These range from $50 to several hundreds. The good news is that something exists for almost every budget.

#3 Increase Your Ability to Concentrate. Like breaking cell phone addiction, this one has benefits beyond safer driving. There is a debate about whether or not “average attention span” is decreasing. Experts consider this misleading as concentration is task dependent. A better question might be, are attention spans decreasing “when doing X?”

Developing an ability to concentrate better while driving would improve safety. Psychology Today lists several tips including exercise your mind by undertaking a challenging project, learn to involve multiple senses, relate information you learn to what you already know, get plenty of sleep, and eat healthier to name a few. Meditation also helps. Much of this development would occur outside of the car but would also have clear residual benefits when driving.

#4 Involve a Partner. If someone is riding with you, they can help. First, they need to be up to speed on the basics of distracted driving. Any article like this one should suffice. Secondly, let them know your personal risk factors. For example, if you have a tendency to grab your cell phone every time it makes a sound, be sure they know to stop you. The odds of two people being distracted at the same time are much lower than a lone driver.

Conclusion

Distracted driving kills 3,000 drivers, passengers and pedestrians each year. Cell phones and infotainment systems have become more engrossing while driver assistance technology has gotten better and better.

The result is this phenomenon is not getting any worse, statistically speaking. It is not getting better either. Drivers who want to lower the risk to themselves, their families and innocent bystanders need to be proactive.

First, know the risk factors, especially the ones that take both eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. Secondly, memorize the tips to reduce distracted driving so that they are always top of mind. Use as much driver assistance technology as your budget allows. Lastly, practice our advanced tips. They will not only make your life better, they will make the world a safer place!


Sources:

  1. NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts
  2. AAA Exchange
  3. IIHS, Loss Data Institute, Teenagers
  4. National Safety Council, Cell phone driving distraction under-reported
  5. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver
  6. Virginia Tech, Cell Phone Use and Distraction
  7. NY Times, Distracted By Tech While Driving, May 2019
  8. Lifewire, 13 Advanced Driver Assistance Systems
  9. The Week, Cell Phone Addiction

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