by Lawrence Herzog

Have you ever attempted to find a radio station or change a CD while driving? Ever spilled a beverage while steering? Ever been so immersed in a conversation that you missed making your turn or went through a red light? Or ever read the paper or groomed yourself in the rear-view mirror while coasting to work?

Top 9 driving distractions

  1. Eating and drinking

  2. Leaning, reaching, adjusting vehicle controls
  3. Activity, sign or distraction outside the car
  4. Smoking
  5. Manipulating audio controls
  6. Using a cellphone
  7. Passenger distraction
  8. Reading or writing
  9. Grooming

Source: SGI and AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you’re not alone. In a society perpetually rushed and time-crunched, multi-tasking behind the wheel has become all too common. While executing the all-important task of driving, some motorists also eat, use laptop computers, talk on their cellphones, deal with unruly children or pets, even window-shop or stare at roadside accidents – all dangerous activities because they take critical attention off the road.

All motorists engage in some form of potentially dangerous distracting activity while driving, notes Daniel Tessier, vice-president of public affairs for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). He observes nothing is more important than being aware of the road and steering, controlling your speed, and other manoeuvres require complete attention. Unless we always give the driving task top priority, we’re bound to have a mishap sooner or later – and it could be a serious one.

Take a look at the numbers: Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) reports driver distraction is the second leading contributing factor in fatal crashes (the first is alcohol). Transport Canada cites driver distraction as a factor in more than 20 per cent of traffic crashes. In 2000 and 2001, SGI adjusters attributed driver distraction as a factor in 17 per cent of the 16,183 Saskatchewan traffic incidents, and driver inattention as a factor in a whopping 50 per cent of the time. Even police members have become exhibits for the dangers of distraction. When the Saskatoon and Regina police services installed mobile screens in their cruisers, the incidence of collisions involving police vehicles increased. American figures paint an even grimmer picture. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the U.S., driver distraction in its various forms contributes to at least nine per cent of serious or fatal crashes and at least 25 per cent of total crashes.

To minimize distractions and focus on the task of driving:

  • Always keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

  • Ensure that small children are secured in child safety seats and other occupants use seat belts.
  • Consume food and beverages only when the car is safely stopped.
  • Review driving directions before you start.
  • Avoid intense conversations with passengers.
  • Pull over to the side of the road when using a cellphone; hands-free or handheld, the conversation is the distraction. And never take notes or use a laptop computer while driving.
  • Don’t ever drive with a child or animal either seated in your lap or allowed to roam freely.
  • If you’re travelling with another adult, put him or her in charge of any child passenger disputes or requests so that you can focus all your attention on the road.

When on foot:

  • Pay attention to the traffic around you and never assume drivers see you.

  • Don’t wear a portable musical device when walking or jogging near traffic.

Source: CAA Saskatchewan, SGI and the Canada Safety Council

But the actual figures could even be higher, notes Kwei Quaye, SGI’s manager of traffic safety program evaluation, because not everybody who has been in a traffic collision admits to talking on a cellphone or being otherwise distracted, even if they were. Take the Regina driver who finally conceded he was shaving right before a collision, or the Saskatoon driver who admitted she was putting on eye shadow in her rear-view mirror and didn’t see the car in front of her suddenly stop. “It’s remarkable the stories we hear,” says Sgt. Brent Schmidt of the Regina Police Service. “All it takes is one more distraction on top of the other distractions, and you can get into trouble quickly.”

Quaye notes that, on the surface, doing two things at once isn’t such a big deal. We do it all the time – walking and talking, jogging and listening to music, or singing and dancing. However, when we’re driving, we’re already doing more than two things at once: steering, braking, shifting gears and watching for traffic all occur at the same time.

Add in distractions, and you have accidents waiting to happen. An American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety study, entitled “Distractions in Everyday Driving” and released in June 2003, found that drivers were engaged in some form of potentially distracting activity up to 16.1 per cent of the total time that their vehicles were moving. But the actual total is likely higher because that figure assumes no overlap among the various activities and excludes time spent conversing with passengers. The study concluded that distractions negatively affect driving performance by resulting in no hands on the steering wheel, the driver’s gaze directed inside rather than outside the vehicle and an increased incidence of wandering in the travel lane or crossing into another travel lane.

Our society, however, condones multi-tasking while driving. Just consider automotive design: most vehicles now come equipped with cup holders and many have complex in-vehicle systems for navigation and entertainment. Last year, Regina police pulled over a vehicle that had an in-dash video screen camouflaged to look like a CD player so the driver could watch DVD movies. By Saskatchewan law, any video screens cannot be visible from the driver’s seat.

In an increasingly hectic and technologically advanced world, distractions behind the wheel and for those on foot have ratcheted up the hazard level. Pedestrians who jaywalk, listen to headphones, talk on their cellphones or are preoccupied by conversing with their companions aren’t putting their safety first. Drivers who get distracted inside the vehicle – even for just a second or two – can find themselves suddenly bearing down on a pedestrian. In addition, of the 2000/2001 traffic incidents identified by SGI as having distraction as a contributing factor, 32 per cent were caused by a distraction outside the vehicle. According to U.S. studies, outside distractions such as objects, people and events (such as a roadside emergency) lead to “rubber necking” and are the number-one source of driver inattention, comprising between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of all distractions.

The hazard posed by the use of automotive telematics, such as cellphones, is such a hot issue that some jurisdictions have banned their use by drivers while the vehicle is in motion. But recent research indicates that telematics aren’t the only issue – the aggregate of all distractions poses an even greater risk. “As our vehicles are becoming ever more like mobile offices, we’ve got to consider just how all those gadgets are impacting safety,” says SGI’s Quaye

The prevalence of driver distraction as well as ongoing media coverage on the use of cell phones while driving prompted SGI to launch a radio, television and billboard campaign to promote awareness of the importance of paying attention while driving. One ad shows a man perched on a bicycle with a cell phone to his ear and a newspaper draped over the handlebars. “You wouldn’t bike like this,” the headline reads. “Why drive like this?”

Sgt. Darryl Billett of the Saskatoon Police Service says drivers have to stop jamming more activities into their driving time – and just drive. “The cognitive load of driving is significant. We have to give it the respect it deserves and not allow distractions to compromise our safety. If the driving environment in the car isn’t safe, the driver should pull over and sort out the problem before continuing on the journey. That’s the job of the driver, and the driver needs to take it seriously.”

This feature originally appeared in Westworld Saskatchewan, CAA Saskatchewan’s magazine to its members.

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