The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at any given daylight moment, 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating other devices. But these are not the only activities distracting drivers.
Distractions include any activity that diverts a motorist’s attention from the primary task of driving. Texting, for example, increases the risk of a car accident by 23 times, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. But many other distractions can also be hazardous, endangering drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists.
The NHTSA identifies three main categories of distractions:
- Visual – Taking your eyes off the road.
- Manual – Taking your hands off the wheel.
- Cognitive – Taking your mind off what you are doing.
Common driver distractions are:
- Texting. One of the most dangerous distractions, texting while driving is completely banned in 44 states plus the District of Columbia. Texting involves all three main types of distractions – visual, manual and cognitive – and is by far the most frightening distraction of all.
- Talking on the phone. Dialing, answering the phone when it rings, talking and listening are simple actions that take your mind off the road and at least one hand off the steering wheel. While 11 states and the District of Columbia have banned all cellphone use by drivers, the problem is still present. A motorist who is cognitively distracted by a phone conversation is liable to run a red light, rear-end another car or change lanes without using a signal.
- Eating and Drinking. Fast food joints are just an exit away, and when the hunger pangs strike, it’s easy to swing off the highway for a snack or a meal without getting out of the car. But when you eat while driving, you are likely to take your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road.
- Talking to passengers. The occupants of your car can pose a visual and cognitive distraction. They may try to make eye contact during conversations, and when you turn your head to look at them or try to see them in the rearview mirror, you take your eyes off the road and risk crashing.
- Grooming. Many people try to save time by waiting until they are in the car to comb their hair or put on make-up. A driver checking his appearance in the rearview mirror takes his eyes off the road long enough to create a dangerous situation.
Others activities, including checking maps, using a navigational system, watching a video, adjusting the car’s temperature controls, radio or CD player, or reaching for something on the passenger seat or floorboard can also be dangerously distracting.
Distractions along the road, such as highway construction or a wreck, can also take your focus away from driving and your eyes off the road in front of you.
Fatigue can lead to the cognitive distraction of daydreaming or zoning out.
In 2012, 3,328 people were killed and an estimated 421,000 people were injured in crashes caused by driver distractions, according to distraction.gov, the government website on distracted driving.
A driver’s primary obligation is safety behind the wheel. Steering a vehicle requires full attention and focus. Drivers should never engage in any activity that takes their eyes off the road for more than a second. In some circumstances, even a second or two can mean the difference between making it to your destination safely and having a devastating car accident.