Any time you’re on the road, there’s a good chance the driver next to or right behind you is multi-tasking — doing anything from scratching off lottery tickets to flossing teeth to engaging in behavior that’s better suited for the back seat.
This month the airwaves and print publications will be awash with a spate of surveys, stories and public service announcements drawing attention to the risks that come when drivers take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. It’s a big enough problem that in 2010 the U.S. House declared April Distracted Driving Awareness month.
Drivers’ use of cellphones has received the most attention, and for good reason. They are never far from our hands. Eight in 10 Americans say cellphones are addictive, according to the National Safety Council. Nearly two-thirds admit to talking on their phones while behind the wheel and a third say they send or read text messages while driving, even though they know that it’s a serious threat to safety, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported in March.
Yet phones are not the only problem, says Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the Minnesota State Patrol. It’s any activity that takes a driver’s mind off the primary task of driving, even if it’s not illegal, she said.
In a tale of true confessions, more than 15 percent of the 2,019 drivers who completed an online survey conducted by Erie Insurance said they had “a romantic encounter” while behind the wheel. The same number combed or styled their hair, 9 percent changed clothes, 8 percent applied makeup while 4 percent brushed or flossed their teeth or took a selfie. A startling 9 percent reported daydreaming, one of the leading causes of crashes according to the insurance company’s analysis of police reports. Moreover, nearly four in 10 who multi-task said they don’t feel they are distracted.
“They are starting to realize that texting is a dangerous behavior, and at the same time they are willing to conduct other types of distracting behaviors, feeling as if they are protected perhaps because of the new safety features in cars,” said Doug Smith, senior vice president of personal lines at Erie. “We will have to wait until cars can drive themselves before people can comb their hair, go to the restroom or kiss each other.”
Yes, 3 percent of survey respondents confessed to relieving themselves while behind the wheel
Distraction exacts a toll
According to government statistics, in 2012, more than 420,000 people were injured in car crashes involving distracted driving and more than 3,300 people died.
That’s why this month you’ll see campaigns such as the National Safety Council’s “Calls Kill.” Phone use involves all three kinds of distractions, visual, cognitive and manual, making it by far one of the most dangerous behaviors. Eighty percent of American drivers believe hands-free devices are safer than using a handheld phone. But more than 30 studies show they are just as dangerous because the brain remains distracted. When talking on a cellphone, drivers can miss seeing up to half of what’s around them, the council said.
“When we get behind the wheel, we have an obligation to keep one another safe,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, the council’s president and CEO. “Drivers who justify cellphone use with the hands-free myth are disregarding that obligation.”