By Phil La Duke
In the United States April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month so you can look forward to a barrage of earnest and well-intentioned campaigns to ensure that drivers are aware of the dangers of distracted driving. Is distracted driving an issue? You bet. The ubiquitous nature of cell phones and smart devices—not to mention GPS systems, car radios, and myriad other sources of distraction—in use today makes the dangers of a traffic accident much greater than it has been in the past. According to www.distraction.gov “An estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, this was a nine percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011.” The problem is compounded by some of the other statistics from the www.distraction.gov website:
- 10% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.
- Drivers in their 20s make up 27 percent of the distracted drivers in fatal crashes. (NHTSA)
- At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. (NOPUS)
- Engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times. (VTTI)
- Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded. (2009, VTTI)
- Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use. (VTTI)
- A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving. (UMTRI)
Clearly some of these statistics are misleading, especially the ones involving teens. When we read that teens are involved in the most accidents while distracted it can lead us to believe that the problem is those damned irresponsible teenagers. The fact is that texting is a new communication vehicle and is disproportionately used by young people. As these people mature, they don’t necessarily abandon the practice, rather young people become a smaller percentage of those who use texting to communicate. Also, while headset cellphone use is not substantially safer than a hand-held device, that is only true during the conversation itself and a hands-free device is significantly safer when placing or receiving a call. But all of this aside, the response from safety pundits seems to be, don’t do anything in the car except drive (I’ve even seen an ominous statistic about the dangers of having a conversation with a passenger while driving). This works on paper, oh hell who am I kidding, this is a stupid idea even on paper. First of all, none of us are going to do this. Imagine the car ride where you ignore everything except the tasks required to drive. You sit stone faced while you and your passengers keep a solemn silence and you do nothing but scan the road, check your mirrors, and keep your hands at the ten and two position.
Some Distraction is Actually Valuable
Way back in college, when I was studying adult education they taught us about how the mind works. As you can imagine, classroom distraction can seriously disrupt the learning experience. Now it’s been a long time since I was in college, but at the time experts calculated the attention span of the average American at something like two and a half minutes.  The thinking is that our brains take in information for about two minutes and then spend about 30 seconds processing it. At the end of a cycle we are most easily distracted because the brain is actively seeking out new information. This cycle continues for about 10 minutes before—unless interrupted—the brain starts to fatigue. In other words, if we concentrate too intently for too long we start to stress ourselves. Changing things every 10 minutes or so sort of resets our brain and refreshes us. After about four hours, however, even a proverbial change of scenery is enough to keep us alert and we quickly see a diminishing return at about six hours we become fairly rubber-headed and incoherent.
I was thinking about this the other day as I was making a four-hour drive home from a client site. My company has a strict “no cellphone use while driving” policy and as a partner and leader I feel that I have to have a “no exceptions” standard of compliance for myself; if I can’t exhibit these behaviors myself, how then can I in good conscious hold others to this standard? So there I am barreling along with the cruise control set (to ensure that I didn’t inadvertently creep up above the speed limit) listening to my iPod on auto shuffle so I don’t have to find another radio station or fiddle with selecting a song (I set it up to shuffle before leaving so I literally don’t have to touch or look at the device while driving.
Now this particular drive involved me driving for all but the last 20 minutes on a single expressway so I didn’t need directions, or the use of a GPS, or even have to think about things like where my exit was or how far away I was from my next turn. Ostensibly this should have been the very safest driving experience (for most of my trip I was the single car on the road).
The lack of distraction meant that I soon started to feel very fatigued, I felt the beginnings of what they used to call “white-line fever” where the hypnotic pattern of the dotted white lane markers made me feel drowsy and made it difficult to concentrate. I was in a particularly desolate area where pulling over and resting for 15 minutes or so seemed not only stupid but potentially dangerous. And even if it was the smart move, I wasn’t about to stop for fifteen minutes an hour and extend my already long car ride for an extra hour. I did recognize the danger however and, drawing on my experience as a trainer, I minimized my risk by introducing…distractions. First, I turned off the cruise control and began checking my speed periodically. Next I began counting the number of deer I had seen on my trip home (13, in case you secretly wanted to know) and finally I would look at the mile markers and mentally calculate how long, at my current rate of speed it would take me to get home. When I got to the next exit that had a gas station I got out and stretched my legs, filled up the tank (because gas was relatively cheap there) used the restroom and stocked up on water and some snacks.
The result was I was far less fatigued than I was prior to when I was driving in a distraction-free environment. I was no longer on auto-pilot and I believe I was safer because of the mild distraction.
For safety pundits to advocate that people drive without any distraction is the same old time-tested imbecility with which most safety professionals attack an emerging threat, that is, prohibition. Prohibition is a dangerous and stupid approach to distracted driving. Instead of telling people not to be distracted (which is like telling people to be taller) we need to encourage people to manage distractions. After all, the distraction in and of itself is not dangerous, rather prolonged distraction is the problem. In fact, when we examine the examples of so-called distractions we’re really not talking about distractions, rather, we are talking about changing the primary activity from driving to something else. www.Distraction.gov offers these examples:
- Using a cell phone or smartphone
- Eating and drinking
- Talking to passengers
- Reading, including maps
- Using a navigation system
- Watching a video
- Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player
Clearly texting is dangerous because the average time it takes to text is 15 seconds and let’s face it, it is exceedingly rare that one sends or receives just one text so the time spent with one’s eyes not on the road is likely best measured in minutes not seconds. But what about talking to passengers? This has been around since the invention of the automobile and until the distraction hysteria has never been taken seriously as a cause of a significant number of traffic accidents. In fact, how many times have you had a passenger interrupt the conversation by alerting the driver of a hazard? Two pair of eyes on the road is safer than just one. Using a hands-free navigation system is clearly safer than reading a map or cutting across three lanes of traffic so that you don’t miss an exit or the not insignificant distraction of being lost and not knowing how to get back on track.
What’s the difference between prohibiting distraction and managing it? Scope. Whenever any activity replaces driving (or working at heights, or operating machinery, or assembling a widget, or operating a crane) as the primary activity we endanger safety. Simply telling people NOT to do anything else except…hasn’t worked since the dawn of time (it only drives the prohibited behavior underground and does nothing to protect people) so we need to help people learn to manage distraction instead. Clearly some of these behaviors (texting, reading emails, answering emails, reading a book) are just plain reckless while others (having a conversation, eating, etc.) represent mild risks that if managed properly can actually reduce driver fatigue and make the roadways safer.
Beyond this, however, is an underlying cause: the privatization of driver’s education. Drivers are far less prepared, in my opinion, to acquire good, safe driving habits and driving skills when they learn to drive from a place that I wouldn’t trust me to sell me a lawn mower rather than our public schools. We need to invest in driver training and do a better job of enforcing the laws on the books and worry less about telling people not to drive while distracted; this is just another way of telling people to be more careful and it won’t do anything but make us feel like we are doing something when we are not.
 According to the Pew Center for research 91% of adults now own cellphones (I have to guess that this is in the United States since the research wasn’t clear, but I know some estimate that worldwide there are more cellphones/smart devices than people on the planet; a claim I find dubious, but the fact that credible people are making it speaks to my point none-the-less
 Surprisingly, this number wasn’t markedly lower than other parts of the world and it seems to be the way the human brain was designed; a physiological rather than cultural phenomena