In our hi-tech, fast-paced age, more and more people are engaging in distracting behavior behind the wheel, whether it's text messaging, making phone calls or even eating breakfast on the fly. The problem has become so widespread that the U.S. Department of Transportation held a special two-day summit on the subject in late September.
Multi-tasking while driving may be tempting, but it's also extremely dangerous. In a groundbreaking study, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) revealed that almost 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event.
Think back to your last road trip or even your commute this morning. Did you participate in any of the most common driving distractions?
A July 2009 VTTI study shows that above all, texting is one of the most dangerous behaviors a driver can engage in. The study shows that drivers engaging in text messaging in a heavy vehicle or truck are a whopping 23.2 times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers.
A tow truck driver from New York recently learned this the hard way. According to The Times News, he was attempting to both text and dial a phone number -- on two separate phones -- when he slammed his truck into a woman's car and crashed headfirst into an in-ground pool. Fortunately, the woman escaped with just some minor head injuries.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 18 states and the District of Columbia have already banned text messaging while driving. A bill being considered by Congress would make texting illegal nationwide. If you're tempted by texting, systems inside the car can help. Ford's SYNC system, available on many models including the Ford Escape and Lincoln MKX, reads your text messages out loud when you link your phone through Bluetooth.
2. Dialing a Cell Phone
Dialing a cell phone while driving comes with a high degree of risk simply because drivers are taking their eyes off the road -- even if it's only for a moment. Drivers in the VTTI study who dialed phones were 2.8 times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers. When driving heavy vehicles or trucks, the drivers' risk of a crash increased to 5.9 times. The VTTI study concludes, "These results show conclusively that a real key to significantly improving safety is keeping your eyes on the road." By contrast, tasks such as listening to books on tape (which VTTI terms as "cognitively intense") come with much lower risks."
While no state completely bans cell phone use, six states and the District of Columbia have banned handheld cell phones. Still, a study funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that the distraction of using a hands-free cell phone is about the same as tuning a radio. So whether it's hands-free or not, a cell phone can be distracting.
3. Dealing with Your Kids
Passengers inside the car can always be a distraction, but this increases when you're dealing with young children who don't understand how their behavior affects the driver. Kids can bicker or misbehave, causing their parents to take their eyes off the road.
Some SUVs and minivans, including the Honda CR-V and Kia Sedona, offer a solution with "conversation mirrors." These are overhead convex mirrors that allow the driver to see what's going on in the seats behind them without turning around or looking away from the road.
However, parents should remember that exercising good judgment is always the best solution -- a suggestion that an Ohio mother didn't heed. According to MSNBC, the woman was charged with child endangerment after she was caught breastfeeding, talking on her cell phone and driving at the same time. She told police that she did it because she couldn't "let her child go hungry."
4. Playing with the Controls
As the navigation and entertainment systems inside cars become more complicated, the distractions facing the driver increase. Touchscreens may be innovative, but because they offer no tactile feedback, they're very difficult to use without glancing away from the road.
Some automakers have come up with systems that might prevent you from getting into minor collisions because of those short glances. In stop-and-go traffic under 10 miles per hour, Volvo XC60's City Safety technology uses an infrared laser sensor to sense when you're approaching the vehicle in front of you too quickly. The car then stops itself, avoiding a crash.
Three percent of respondents in a 2008 Nationwide Mutual study said that eating is the most dangerous distraction for them while driving. A 2006 Privilege Insurance test conducted in England shows how dangerous eating can be. In the simulator, drivers had to navigate an urban road once without eating, and another time while eating or drinking at two intervals -- just as a pedestrian stepped onto the road. The number of crashes doubled during the food and drink trial.
Insurance.com notes that some foods are more dangerous than others. In particular, the most dangerous foods are hot liquids, greasy foods and gooey foods, since they're more likely to spill. It also goes without saying that any food requiring two hands is a problem. According to ABC News, a Massachusetts man was recently cited for eating a bowl of cereal while operating a motor vehicle. Not surprisingly, officers pulled him over for driving erratically.
New technology from Mercedes-Benz can provide a wake-up call for distracted drivers. Available on the 2010 E-Class and 2009 S-Class, the automaker's lane departure warning system vibrates the steering wheel if the car unintentionally leaves the lane. The system is unique because it can differentiate between drivers who are leaving the lane on purpose, such as for a quick passing maneuver, and those who are driving erratically due to distraction.