From cell phones and iPods to fast-food snacks and driver drowsiness, there are more than enough distractions to keep Georgia motorists from focusing on our four-lanes. And now new national data is showing driver inattention is a key cause in most crashes and near-crashes.
According to a 2006 study of real-world driver behavior, distraction, and crash factors, about 80 percent of crashes were caused by some form of distraction-- such as cell phone use or being tired-occurring within three seconds of the incident. The study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found drivers who frequently engage in the most distracting activities are more likely to be involved in an inattention-related crash or near-crash.
A 2001 national phone survey conducted by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) found that 94 percent of Americans know distracted driving when they’re doing it and included these activities on their list: eating, talking with a passenger, adjusting the stereo or vehicle climate controls, using a cell phone, tending to children, grooming, reading maps, books or newspapers, and preparing for work.
It doesn’t take a highway safety scientist to predict that cell phone use is the most common driving distraction of emerging 21st century technology. But many responsible drivers are surprised to learn that cell phone dialing, talking and listening all cause nearly equal numbers of crashes. Why? Because even though dialing is definitely more dangerous when removing a driver’s eyes from the road, it occurs less often than talking or listening.
A 2008 AutoVantage motor club survey ranked Atlanta as the sixth-least courteous city in the U.S. after 35-percent of the Metro-Area drivers in the survey admitted they talk everyday on the cell phone while driving. Texting while driving remains under study. But Georgia drivers are already ranked among the many culprits. According to an online survey released in May 2008, Georgia has the third-highest rate in the nation for drivers who text on cell phones while behind the wheel. Thirty-seven percent of the drivers in the Georgia survey admitted they actually text while driving. Anecdotal evidence points to younger, less experienced drivers engaged in this hazardous distracted driving habit.
Your primary job behind the wheel is paying attention to the highway. If you take your eyes off the road when you text, you’re not doing your primary job. There is clear evidence that teen drivers are the most easily distracted drivers and parents should discourage these inexperienced motorists from using cell phones while driving, regardless if they’re in talk mode or text.
A National Safety Council (NSC) survey also found that 10 percent of daytime motorists use some type of hand-held or hands free phone. The NSC compares the distraction caused by cell phone use to the slower reaction time of an impaired driver. A similar study anecdotally compares driver reaction time while using cell phones to that of elderly vehicle operators. Some current studies also discount the benefit of hands-free devices. Using a hands-free device will help keep both hands on the wheel, but these studies have shown they won’t reduce the level of distraction, indicating it’s the conversation that distracts the driver, not the electronic design features.
Unfortunately, the distractions don’t end when Georgia motorists finally hang up the phone and drive. Several other activities have been found to be just as distracting or even more capable of increasing crash occurrences and here’s how they rank: reaching for a moving object, increases crash risk by 9 times; looking at an object outside the vehicle increases crash risk by 3.7 times; reading increases crash risk by 3 times; grooming or applying makeup increases crash risk by 3 times; using a hand-held device like a GPS increases crash risk by 3 times; talking or listening to a hand-held cell phone increases crash risk by 1.3 times; and drowsiness, a tired driver behind the wheel, increases crash risk by 4 times.
Drivers are often surprised to find drowsiness included on this list, but it’s been found to be a substantial challenge to remaining attentive behind the wheel. The study shows tired drivers actually increase their likelihood of crashing by a factor-of-four. What makes this part of the distracted driving study doubly troubling is that drowsy driving may also be drastically under-reported as a cause of traffic crashes.
With so many traffic crashes attributed to driver distraction, it’s also interesting to find so many drivers willing to admit to engaging in distracting activities while driving. Eighty-two percent of American motorists rate distracted driving as a serious problem, yet more than half admit to talking on the cell phone while driving during the last month. All of us must learn to put down our cell phones and sandwiches and practice safer driving habits. I usually end my letters reminding drivers of this simple safe driving formula: Buckle Up. Slow Down. Drive Sober. But I think we need to add one more piece of advice to our safe driving motto: PAY ATTENTION!
Dallas is director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety