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Distracted Driving: It's Not Just About Cell Phones

What pops into your head when you hear the term “Distracted Driving?” Someone talking on their cell phone or texting behind the wheel? Or maybe they have one hand on the steering wheel and the other wrapped around a cheeseburger. Perhaps they’re trying to figure out their new car’s fancy touch-screen navigation system while they’re on the road.

Distracted driving refers to any factor or process that takes a driver’s focus away from driving. In order to prevent accidents, drivers must eliminate all driving distractions. Let’s take a look at the four types of distractions and how to combat them.

Visual Distractions

Visual distractions are the most common type of driving distraction. These are factors that take our eyes off the road and can prevent us from seeing or reacting to an approaching hazard. Here are some tips for avoiding visual distractions: 

Reading or typing a text message: 

There are simple steps you can take to avoid these common visual distractions. Several states have banned texting while driving or even using hand-held cell phones for any task while driving, and employers have cell phone policies in place. Whether it’s allowed or not, the National Safety Council (NSC) encourages all drivers to avoid using cell phones at all while driving.
To manage your cell phone use, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends pulling over and parking in a safe location before reading or sending a text, or designating your passenger to respond to calls or messages. If the pull of your cell phone is too much to resist, put in in your trunk, glovebox, or back seat until you arrive at your destination.  

Interacting with a navigation system:

Never wait until you start moving to program your navigation system. Enter the address of your destination and review your route before you begin your drive. If you need to make a change during your drive, pull over at a safe location first.

Looking in a bag, console, or glovebox for items:

Pulling over is also the best choice if you need to search for an item. Taking your eyes off the road, even for “just a second,” can rob you of the precious reaction time you need to avoid a hazard. 

Staring at a billboard or an incident on the road:

According to a literature review shared by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “External distraction appears to affect at least 6-9% of distraction-affected motor vehicle collisions.” This is “especially the case for digital billboards,” because drivers tend to look more frequently and for longer periods at digital billboards (Beijer et al., 2013, Decker et al., 2015). Since a driver can’t eliminate these outside distractions, it is important drivers make a conscious choice to stay focused on the road and to resist the temptation to stare at advertisements or “rubberneck” when they encounter an incident.

Auditory Distractions

An auditory distraction is anything that prevents a driver from making the best use of their hearing. Examples include loud music, conservations (either on the phone or with passengers), screaming children, text notifications, and navigation system instructions.

Not only can these nuisances distract us from focusing on our task, they can decrease our ability to hear external sounds that give us important information, such as sirens from emergency vehicles or horns from other drivers giving warning of a hazard.

To reduce auditory distractions, keep your sound system at a manageable level, pull over to make or take a phone call, and don’t be afraid to tell your passenger you need to pause the conversation to focus on your driving.

Cognitive Distractions

Cognitive distractions are perhaps the most difficult to eliminate, partly because they overlap with other types of distractions. These include anything that can take your mind off driving, including daydreaming, multitasking, carrying on phone conversations, or thinking about anything besides the act of driving. Cognitive distraction impedes our ability to be aware of and react to changing conditions.

Physical and mental states can also affect your cognitive state. Driving while extremely fatigued is sometimes called "the ultimate distraction" as our eyes glaze over or even nod off into micro-sleeps. Extreme emotions such as anger, sadness, or frustration can impair our senses, focus, and reaction times. Complacency puts us in danger by putting us into "auto-pilot" mode, dulling our focus and response time to hazards.

To avoid cognitive distractions, start with these tips:

  • Put your phone away, turn it off, put it on silent mode, or place it out of reach. If you need to make a call or send a message, pull over in a safe place first.
  • Eat and drink before driving, not during.
  • Use a GPS system for navigation. This eliminates having to refer to a map or being distracted by your surroundings when traveling through unfamiliar areas.
  • Stay focused on the road. Don’t allow yourself to get lost in thought or overly engrossed in music or a podcast.
  • Don't drive drowsy. Follow this advice from the CDC and NIOSH: pull over, drink a cup of coffee, and take a 15-30 minute nap.
  • Consider your physical and mental state and choose not to get behind the wheel if you are physically or emotionally unable to drive safely.
  • Avoid complacency while driving by varying your route, redoubling your efforts to be aware of your surroundings, and reminding yourself of the possible consequences of inattentive driving.

Manual Distractions

Manual distraction refers to use of our hands, feet, or other body parts to manually perform tasks other than driving. Some examples included taking our hands off the wheel to eat, drink, or smoke, moving our feet away from the pedals to put on or remove shoes, feeling around for an object like a napkin or cell phone, or typing information into a navigation system.

Manual distraction is dangerous because it removes our immediate ability to control the vehicle and can delay or event prevent us from making an evasive maneuver. Keep your hands on the wheel and your feet on the pedals, ready to react!

Keep Your Employees Safe!

Distracted driving affects everyone – whether your workers operate vehicles as part of their job duties, drive to or from work, or ride in automobiles during off-job hours. Distracted Driving Awareness Month is an opportunity to remind your employees and coworkers to drive responsibly. Utilize these resources to promote a culture of safe driving year-round, and stay safe!

Training Resources:

To The Point About: Eliminating Driving Distractions

National Safety Council Employer Kit for Safe Driving

CDC/NIOSH Distracted Driving at Work

Three Keys to Safe Driving: Prepare, Anticipate and Defend

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Take Action Against Distraction: Staying Focused to Avoid Injury






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