All Distractions Are Not Created Equally


By Phil La Duke

Continuing my series on driver distraction (April is National Distracted Driver Awareness month in the U.S.)

I’m alarmed at how cavalier U.S. drivers have become about risk. I travel via car a lot and have seen some really recklessness on the road. While much of that recklessness is related to driver distraction I am also alarmed at what I see is a knee-jerk reaction to the risks of driver distraction. The use of smart devices while driving, even when using hands-free devices, present a significant risk to driver and pedestrian safety, but it seems like the safety pundits have extrapolated that ALL distractions while driving pose approximately the same risk; and this is just another example of the kind of reactionary thinking that creates unenforceable and irrational policies.

Most People Ignore Smart Device Policies

A recent poll by the National Safety Council found that 70% of respondents admitted that they knowingly violate their companies’ policies regarding the use of smart devices while driving. This is an alarming statistic until you really think about it. Ask yourself have you ever sent a text while waiting at a stop light? Does that constitute texting while driving? I don’t really have a dog in this fight. My company has a policy that forbids the use of smart devices while driving and it is very specific in its wording, so I know that texting at while stopped at a traffic light is forbidden. I follow our policy, but it wasn’t easy at first. I found it irritating and distracting that I couldn’t check my email while stopped at a light, and I was irritated by the time wasted in long drives where, I reasoned, I could get more done if I could just talk on the phone. But my company culture is very strong on this issue and because I was new to organization, the drive to conform was strong. I soon found that complying took a lot of stress out of my day and that my car rides were less stressful.

The Cry Goes Out Against “Other Distractions”

And so the witch hunt against driver distractions begins. What about conversations with passengers? What about gawking at an accident? What about a pretty girl in a short skirt? What about playing with the radio? What about GPSs? What about…just about anything you can think of that can distract you? There are already companies with initiatives underway to ban all driver distraction. With these efforts there is a renewed question in the minds of the organization: are safety professionals naturally soft in the head? It’s a fair question, when people see policies that ban everything from reading a book while driving to changing the station on the car radio it begs the question “how far out of touch is the safety function”?

Driving While Distracted Remains Dangerous

There has been a spate of recent studies that confirm that distracted driving is a serious threat to public safety, and the findings are troubling:

  • Studies have shown that driving while distracted is roughly as dangerous as being moderately intoxicated, but this is a dubious finding.
  • Further studies have shown little to no difference in driver distraction while using hands-free devices instead of traditional cellular devices
  • There are even studies that show that talking to a passenger is as dangerous as being distracted by phone use while driving.
  • Finally there are studies that find that numerous other distractions pose significant risk—from the use of global positioning systems to fighting children.

So if we combine these findings we essentially conclude that driving with any amount of distraction is as dangerous as driving while impaired by alcohol use. Unfortunately, this conclusion is completely wrong, and here’s why:

  • Distractions that cause the driver to take his or her eyes of the road are far more dangerous than distractions that don’t. Studies (I know AGAIN with the studies) have shown that the dangers of texting while driving are INCREASED by laws against texting. Why? Because the prohibition didn’t stop the behavior, in fact, people who ordinarily used to text while holding the phone such that they could keep their eyes on the road would now text while holding the phone down to avoid detection. The unintended consequence was that incidence of texting while driving did not fall the dangers associated with it increased.[1]
  • The amount of time distracted is more of a hazard than the distraction alone. According to the National Safety Council it takes, on average, 15 seconds to send a text message and roughly the same amount of time to receive and read one. Imagine closing your eyes for 30 seconds while driving 70 miles an hour. I’ll do the math: 70 mph=.58 miles in 30 seconds=103 feet per second, or the length of a football field for ever text processed while driving. Compare that to looking over at a passenger while you converse with him or her. If your passenger is sane and you look at them for 30 seconds while going 70 miles an hour they are likely to yell, “watch the (expletive) road you (expletive) maniac”!! I don’t have a study to support this assertion, just a proverb, two sets of eyes are better than one. I think it’s irresponsible for pundits to perpetuate the idea that talking to a passenger in a car is as dangerous as texting.
  • There is always some level of distraction; we have to pick our battles. Before we had phones and GPS systems that could provide us turn-by-turn directions we had Mapquest (and before that Triptix or the good old fashion maps) There aren’t any studies to tell us how much more dangerous reading directions from a piece of paper are as compared to operating a GPS or using turn-by-turn directions. The base line data was never collected because people reasoned that maps on paper where the only way people were going to get to an unfamiliar location. While I’m sure that there were numerous accidents caused by people reading maps there is no way to support that turn by turn directions are safer. I will say that turn by turn directions require the driver to take his or her eyes of the road far less frequently than a paper map and intuitively I believe it to be safer.

Instead of fighting driver distraction beyond texting and using a phone without hands-free capability I say we begin a campaign against driving like an ass. Over the last ten years I have seen a marked increase in drivers who don’t use turn signals, make illegal turns, speed, follow too close, cut off other drivers, and generally drive like a drug-addled baboon. They weren’t distracted; they were inconsiderate jerks who live without consequences. As long as we remain silent instead of notifying our local police departments that more people need to be stopped and ticketed for these behaviors the problem will only get worse.

[1] This is not to say that texting while watching the road was a safe or smart practice but it was marginally less unsafe than before the law was passed.


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