Distracted Driving: It’s Worse Than You Thought

Despite all the warnings, distracted driving remains a serious problem. What’s got us so preoccupied? The answers might surprise you.

Distracted driving seems to be in the headlines every other day — and it can feel like we’ve heard it all 100 times before. Yes, texting and talking on your mobile while driving is bad. We get it. We even went out and bought hands-free devices. Isn’t that enough? We do live in a multi-tasking world, after all.

But the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) and other safety groups aren’t going to let us off that easy — not when 1 out of 10 fatal traffic accidents are caused by inattention behind the wheel. New studies are constantly being conducted, with some surprising results. So if the words “distracted driving” make you tune out like a, well, distracted driver, here are some recent findings you might want to know about.

Texting isn’t as bad as you thought — it’s worse

Texting while driving raises your crash risk by 23 times. The 3 main types of distractions are manual, visual, and cognitive, and texting involves the whole trifecta. You may think the act of texting is too quick to matter, but even if u r using shorthand, sending or reading the average text takes 4.6 seconds. In that time, if you were going 55 mph, you’d travel 100 yards (the length of a football field) and you’d essentially be doing it with your eyes closed. Not a good idea.

Hands-free doesn’t really help you

If your phone rings while you’re behind the wheel, do you answer it? Nearly half of the drivers recently surveyed by the NHTSA said they would. And 24 percent said they would place a call while driving, despite the obvious dangers of looking down to dial or controlling your car with one hand while talking.

Because of these risks, 11 states have now made it illegal for all drivers to use handheld cell phones. A headset sounds like the obvious solution, but it turns out that using a cell phone with a headset is not actually much safer than holding it in your hand. Granted, the headset leaves both hands free, but that doesn’t seem to be the issue it’s the conversation itself that causes the distraction. A recent Toronto study tested this theory using an MRI machine fitted with a driving simulator. During a phone call (hands-free or not), blood flow decreased to the areas of the brain that control alertness and vision processing and was redirected to the area that handles conversation.

The statistics for hands-free texting are even more alarming, according to new research published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. On a distraction scale of 1 to 5, where 1 equals doing nothing but driving and 5 equals driving while doing a set of mental math-and-memory problems, hands-free texting ranked 3.06 (talking on a hands-free phone came in at 2.27). Once again, even if your eyes are on the road and your hands are on the wheel, your mind is likely to be elsewhere.

Listening to music isn’t distracting, but touch-free radio controls are

Not all the news is bad. A new Dutch study suggests that listening to music while driving doesn’t impair reaction times. Because music is not as mentally engaging as texting or talking, drivers are able to block it out when they need to concentrate. And, in some situations, music may even improve focus by helping drivers stay alert.

So go ahead and play those tunes, especially if you have an old-school radio knob rather than a touch screen. According to consumer reviews, many drivers find touch-screen radio controls distracting since you need to look at the screen to make adjustments, rather than using touch and muscle memory. In fact, drivers feel so strongly about this that Ford is abandoning their touch-screen system and going back to using traditional dials and buttons on their high-tech dashboards.

Is tech the enemy?

Drivers have a lot to thank technology for. From adaptable headlights to automatic brakes and GPS, technological innovations have made (and continue to make) driving safer and more enjoyable. But when it comes to mobile phones and touch screens, it seems driving and tech don’t always mix. Until self-driving cars are a reality, maybe it’s best to keep the cell phone on sleep mode.

Related links:
Distracted driving facts and solutions
The 3 types of distracted driving
Does music make you an unsafe driver?

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