Would you drive a distance equivalent to an entire length of an American football field at 55 mph (89 km/h) blindfolded?
Even though many people will answer the question above with an empathic no, the reality is that most of us do exactly that when we text while driving. Consequently, in the United States, approximately eight people die every day in car crashes involving distracted driving.
Indeed, phones have an essential and valuable function in cars, from providing maps, driving directions, podcasts, music, and emergency calls, but they can also be a menace that could potentially lead to chaos on the roads.
To create consciousness around the dangers of distracted driving, this article focuses on the consequences of distracted driving and how simple solutions can alleviate the situation. It emphasizes the reality that distracted driving does not only involve using the mobile phone while driving but also other factors like eating, engaging passengers, or changing the dials on the car radio.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system — anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”
The NHTSA is an agency of the US federal government under the Department of Transportation. It defines its mandate: “Through enforcing vehicle performance standards and partnerships with state and local governments, NHTSA reduces deaths, injuries and economic losses from motor vehicle crashes.”
From the NHTSA definition above, it’s clear that while cell phones are a major contributor to distracted driving, they are not the only culprits.
The website that provides tools and resources for financial planning, Bankrate.com, identifies four types of distracted driving, all of which can lead to potentially fatal consequences:
Cognitive distractions:Happen when your mind drifts away from the activity of driving. Such interruptions can include daydreaming or being too upset to concentrate on the task of driving.
Visual distractions:Take your eyes off the road and make you momentarily sidetracked and stop looking ahead on the road. Sometimes people get involved in accidents while watching scenes of other accidents on the road.
Auditory distractions:Include voices or sounds that attract your concentration and shift your attention from safe driving. They also include holding conversations in the car or even listening to music.
Manual distractions:Involve taking your hands or one of your hands off the wheel to perform a non-driving activity such as taking a sip from a drink, eating, or using an electronic device.
Do all types of distractions bear the same amount of risk?
Experts indicate that while all types of distractions significantly increase the risk of a car crash, some increase the risk more than others. For instance, a distraction such as texting, which requires a combination of cognitive, visual, and manual resources, would make a car crash 23 times more likely to happen.
The NHTSA reports that distracted driving claimed 3,142 lives in 2019. Here are some distracted driving statistics showing how bad the problem is:
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports that out of the 220 million Americans that subscribe to wireless services, an estimated “80% of those subscribers use their phones while driving.”
Texting while driving is particularly fatal, at least as far as statistics are concerned. Suppose the estimates from the NCSL are accurate. In that case, it doesn’t come as a surprise that approximately 400 fatal car accidents every year are directly attributed to simultaneous texting and driving.
Two key risk factors drive the number of fatal accidents caused by distracted driving: age and number of passengers.
In a research note published in April 2020, the NHTSA indicates that “Eight percent of drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted.” It adds, “This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted at the time of the fatal crashes.”
The second risk factor is the number of passengers. The chances of a teenage driver getting killed in a car crash increase with every additional passenger in the car, up to 44% with one passenger, doubling when there are two passengers, and quadrupling when there are three or more passengers.
Therefore, it can be suggested that reducing the number of passengers in a car driven by a teenager could significantly reduce the number of fatal crashes.
Even though we focus on drivers and their passengers, distracted driving kills many non-occupants, including cyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. For instance, the NHTSA reports that in 2019, distracted drivers were involved in the deaths of 566 non-occupants.
Statistics show that males are involved in more fatal accidents related to distracted driving than females. The NHTSA notes that “Sixty-nine percent of the distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes were males as compared to 73 percent of drivers in all fatal crashes in 2019.”
Driving demands a significant portion of our mental resources. Research indicates that it places a huge demand on our cognitive abilities, such as our vision and motor skills and our visual-spatial orientation and integration functions.
In driving, mental resources are required to monitor other cars on the same road, process signs and traffic rules, and make quick cognitive decisions.
While cellphone use is possibly the most common distracting behavior, a few more common behaviors also comprise distracted driving: eating, drinking, and smoking.
Other behaviors include intricate conversations with passengers, grabbing items from the back seat, applying makeup, focusing too much on the rearview mirror, fiddling around with GPS or navigation systems, and using electronic devices in the car.
Distractions and related behaviors also use the same mental resources needed for safe driving. An activity such as texting or turning to have a quick conversation with a passenger significantly limits the required alertness for safe driving, even if it takes mere seconds.
Death is, of course, the most extreme consequence of distracted driving. Families are left to rue the loss of their loved ones, their breadwinners, and other important individuals in their communities. Others have their lives permanently altered or have to remain in special care for the rest of their lives.
Kira Hudson, a victim of crashes caused by distracted driving, tells a story that puts a human face to distracted driving. She talks about how she was left to endure pain, deep regret, and even anger after two accidents involving distracted driving.
Hudson says she was arguing with her boyfriend on the phone while driving. A series of incidents lead to her crashing the car while still holding her phone. She is quoted saying, “It doesn’t look like it, but I was very fortunate in my crash.” She adds, “I’m still here today. I didn’t hurt anyone else. If I would have hurt someone, I don't think I would have had the same outlook as I do now.”
You can watch Hudson tell her story in the video below.
The best solution to avoid distracted driving is to focus solely on the task of driving. Of course, this is easier said than done, but if you listen to stories such as the one told by Hudson above, you will know that being disciplined enough to concentrate on the task of safe driving could save lives.
To deal with the challenge of distracted driving, many automobile manufacturers now integrate Bluetooth technology into the car’s infotainment systems. After an initial setup, these systems automatically connect with your cellphone as soon as you enter the car, allowing you to control the phone’s functions without holding the phone in your hand while driving.
A few other aftermarket products are available that significantly reduce the amount of distraction. One good option is to get a cup holder phone mount.
Other products like the car air vent phone holder provide the best angle because you can adjust the phone mount part 360 degrees. This means that you don’t have to adjust your driving position at any time while you’re using the phone for tasks like navigation.
Here are some more tips on using your cellphone while driving:
Remember, no phone call or message is more important than your life or the lives of passengers and other road users. If that phone call has to be made, find a safe place to stop your vehicle and make the call or send the message without unnecessarily exposing yourself and others to danger.