In an endlessly connected world—where our cars talk to us nearly as much as our passengers do, vehicle entertainment systems are racing to be the best and biggest, and a text, tweet, or status update is no further than a pocket or purse away—there are plenty of ways to drive distracted.
There are three main categories of distraction that encompass most of the bad habits causing trouble on the road.
Driving, especially for long distances, may seem mundane or monotonous, but it’s an act that requires constant attention and care to be done right. When a wandering mind takes over at the wheel, it’s called a cognitive distraction.
These thoughts can be fleeting—perhaps just a daydream—or more substantive, focusing on the issues and pressures of everyday life.
Feeling the fatigue of such stress, some people don’t remember driving at all, only to realize after arriving at their destination that they have no idea how they got there. Others more actively participate in cognitive distraction, making phone calls while driving, which can be just as dangerous as driving drunk, whether using a hand-held or hands-free device.
Even music, which can help make even the longest car rides more bearable, can be a factor. A comprehensive study conducted in 2014 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that focused on the driving habits of 1,700 teenagers found that singing or moving to music was an issue in 8% of the crashes that occurred during the analysis.
The same AAA study focusing on what diverted the attention of teenage drivers found that looking at something inside the vehicle played a part in 10% of the crashes that happened during the observation. Not far behind was the distraction of looking at something outside of the car, which was a factor in 9 percent of the accidents the teens were involved in.
Part of the problem is the sheer speed at which our vehicles can move—and how much we can miss in the blink of an eye. At 60 miles per hour—which isn’t even reaching the highway speed limit in many states—diverting one’s gaze for just 2 seconds could mean missing out on 176 feet of road, or about half a football field (including the end zones).
Two seconds may not seem like much, but one recent study on the subject suggested that it is just about the extent of how long someone can safely look away while driving. The longer someone’s eyes were focused on something else, the study concluded, the more dangerous the driving became.
Physical separation from the steering wheel or pedals is called “manual distraction,” and, like the other two distraction categories, it’s easy to fall prey to it without realizing.
Manual distractions can be as innocuous-seeming as buckling a seatbelt, adjusting the temperature, or changing the radio station. Of course, they can also be more involved, like eating a meal, drinking, or putting on makeup—dangerous activities that some surveys show have become more commonplace over the years. Back in 2010, nearly 41% of drivers admitted to the Pew Research Center that they’ve eaten a meal behind the wheel, with 16% saying they combed their hair or applied makeup while driving.
In the teen-centric AAA study, “reaching for an object” and the catch-all category of “grooming” were each a factor in 6% of the crashes that happened during the research period.
Worst of the Worst - The Triple Threats
The human imagination has always outpaced human capabilities. And despite how much modern culture and technology design begs to differ, our minds do not multitask very well.
This case is especially true when it comes to the triple threats of driving distracted: those actions that incorporate aspects of cognitive, visual, and manual distraction.
Ironically, the most common type of triple threat derives from one of our basest desires as humans: the need to bond with each other.
Interacting with others, whether through the phone or in-person, consistently ranks as the most dangerous driving distraction in studies done on the subject—and understandably so. Socializing forces us to divide our mental attention, thinking about what to say or how to react to our conversation-mates. Using phones requires both hands and eyes, and similarly, we tend to look at the people we talk to in person and often turn our bodies to face them, as well.
In the AAA teen study, “interacting with passengers” played a role in more crashes than any other distraction, at 15%. Cell phone usage clocked in second, as a factor in 12% of the accidents.
But it’s not just teens who are on their phones while driving. In 2013, AT&T conducted a study that showed 49% of adults also texted while driving—despite the same study finding that 98% of the participants believed it wasn’t safe.
All that time on the phone is not only mentally distracting, it’s also taking eyes off the road and hands off the wheel for precious seconds—4.6 of them, on average, which is more than twice as long as the “safest” recommended time for drivers to divert their gazes.
Interacting with passengers face-to-face doesn’t fare much better in many studies, especially when the fellow travelers are babies, children, pets, or those who otherwise need extra attention.
One interesting caveat emerged in a survey conducted by the University of Illinois. The research conducted there found that a passenger with knowledge of what’s going on in the car could actually cut down on the likelihood of crashing—although the probability of being involved in an accident was still much higher in that situation than if the driver were alone and in silence.
Other triple threats are less common but certainly still play a role in distracted driving. Many can be found under that umbrella category of “grooming,” such as applying mascara, eyeliner, or foundation, and even shaving (a phenomenon that an increasing number of traffic cops have reported over the years.)
And while newspapers, magazines, and road atlases may be on the decline in general, busting out such physical reading material while in the driver’s seat is another triple threat—one that 6% of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2010 copped to doing.
Still, our world is nothing if not fast-paced, with new technologies—and opportunities for distraction—being developed every day. But as much as we may want connected cars or constant communication, driving safely is yet another situation where, it seems, we become victims of our own biological limitations.