Anybody who’s driven a car knows there’s been an instant or two where they’ve become distracted. The vast majority of the time such distractions don’t result in any problems. But once in awhile, the distraction can cause an accident, resulting in injury and even death.
We often think of distractions in terms of what’s distracting us — a screaming child or cell phone ringing. But psychologists who study distractions while driving look at it differently. They’ve classified four broad categories of distractions while driving (Stutts et al., 2005):
- Visual distractions (e.g., focusing on something other than the road)
- Audible distractions (e.g., someone talking)
- Physical distractions (e.g., eating)
- Cognitive distractions (e.g., something that requires you to think about something other than driving)
Every distracting situation can include one or more of these categories. For instance, talking on a cell phone includes physical distraction (dialing the phone or picking up a call), audible distraction, and cognitive distraction (especially for work-related calls that require thought and such).
Research has demonstrated that each type of distraction can result in its own problems while driving. For example, visual distractions are more likely to lead to a steering problem, while a cognitive distraction might lead to keeping less distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.
Distracted driving has been with us ever since the automobile was invented — humans just seem not very good at concentrating on a single (somewhat boring) task for lengthy periods of time. So we fiddle with the radio, try and keep our kids entertained and under control, and even put on makeup while driving. But more recently lawmakers have been led to believe that one distraction is more harmful or dangerous than all these existing distractions — cell phones. Some states have even gone so far to bar cell phone use if it isn’t “hands free.”
We’re not sure why the focus on a single object of distraction, ignoring all the other things people do while driving in their cars. GPS navigation systems are potentially just as dangerous, especially aftermarket systems that allow for manipulation of the system while driving. But for reasons only a politician can know and love, lawmakers focus on cell phones.
Even hands-free cell phone use, however, can lead to distracted driving. Hands-free cell phone use only takes care of one type of distraction — physical — while keeping the others — audible, visual and cognitive. Apparently actual research results aren’t taken into consideration when passing these short-sighted laws. For instance, Levy et al. (2006) found that reaction time was still significantly slower in performing just visual and auditory tasks with no physical element.
The next big distraction is already on the way to becoming the newest problem — texting while driving. Teens used to texting in virtually every situation and every time are also texting while driving (adults do too, but texting is far more prevalent amongst teenagers than adults). Texting requires virtually all four categories of distraction (except, perhaps, thought), and its physical requirements of hitting the right keys to form a word (or word fragment) means the driver is taking their eyes off of the road four times more than they do normally. That’s an accident waiting to happen.
More laws aren’t the solution, but common sense is. While we will all continue to have distraction while driving, keep them to a minimum and to ones where you feel comfortable in knowing that the majority of your attention will remain where it needs to be — on the road.
- Minimize distractions before you start moving by taking care of what you can ahead of time. Make sure the kids are buckled up and have their own distractions for the ride (books, toys, etc.). If you need directions for where you’re going, have them out and on the seat next to you (or the GPS programmed before you start moving).
- Answers only truly important phone calls while driving. Most people have a lousy ability to ignore a ringing phone (especially our cell phones), believing all calls are equally important. Learn to prioritize your calls and return the unimportant ones when you’ve arrived at your destination. (“But how do I know if it’s an important call without answering it?!” Unless you were expecting an important call from a colleague or family member, chances are it can wait.)
- Do not do anything you could do elsewhere in the car. Trying to read, put on makeup, or a dozen other things we do that could be better done at home or at a stationary table. While we think we’re “saving time” by taking care of these tasks in the car, what we’re really doing is playing a odds/risk-ratio game where we believe the risk is worth the odds of actually getting into an accident. But think about this rationally for a moment… Traveling at 65 MPH on a highway will result in a serious, possibly fatal accident. Do you want to be the cause of such an accident in the name of makeup?
- Try not to eat on the road. Just as you should avoid taking calls while driving, eating is also a major distraction in the car, requiring at least two categories of distraction. While we all do it, we should try and do less of it to keep ourselves (and other drivers) safe.
- Do not text while driving. This is just common sense. The more categories of distraction a task requires, the more at-risk you are placing yourself. Any task that includes all four categories is a high risk task and one that should be avoided at all costs. Pull over and stop for a minute if you absolutely must answer a text message; otherwise it can wait until you’ve reached your destination.
Levy, J., Pashler, H., & Boer, E. (2006). Central interference in driving: Is there any stopping the psychological refractory period? Psychological Science, 17(3), 228-235.
Stutts, J., Knipling, R.R., Pfefer, R., Neuman, T.R., Slack, K.L., & Hardy, K.K. (2005). Guidance for implementation of the AASHTO strategic highway safety plan: A guide for reducing crashes involving drowsy and distracted drivers. NCHRP Rep. No. 500-14. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board.