AAA, the esteemed automobile club calls the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the “100 Deadliest Days” of summer. It is fair to assume that distracted driving behaviors has contributed a good deal to the creation of this term. Let us not forget that distracted driving behaviors are any less prominent during the rest of the year. It is true that intensity of driving surely picks up during summer.
In view of the above, it is highly appropriate for me to draw focus of this article on a behavior that transcends age, sex and driver experience. I call it the ‘Multi-tasking Myth’. I convincingly refute this myth in my book: ‘One Split Second’ and urge readers to look it up on Amazon.com.
We have a misconception that we are fully capable of doing many things simultaneously. This belief has forced many among us to the pervasive use of cell phones while driving, and exploiting every functionality of this electronic marvel. It is not uncommon to notice individuals with hands-free phones actively texting, tweeting, searching the web, taking selfies on Snapchat, all with a single hand or none of the hands on the steering wheel. The underlying assumption is that we are capable of doing all this as a routine aspect of driving. Nothing could be farther from truth. One of the most surprising facts about interacting with a cell phone while driving is that there is no significant difference in the level of distraction between holding the phone and using a hands-free device or system like the car’s Bluetooth connection. Even when hands-free, the mental process of engaging in a conversation is dangerously distracting. Just as surprising is the fact that talking and listening demand different levels of work in the brain. Talking—producing information—requires more brain power than simply listening, and that’s where we get into trouble. One of the nation’s leading researchers on driver distraction, David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, explained that the brain does not focus on two things at once, but instead switches back and forth between tasks. This switching happens so quickly that we may think we’re multi-tasking, but actually we are task switching. The brain is shifting its attention from one task to another. When the brain is focused on one task, like forming thoughts and language during a conversation, it may not be giving attention to the critical task of monitoring/scanning the road. Strayer designed a brain workload scale that ranges from 1 to 5, and the data from his research suggests that when we try to generate information, to talk, it takes the highest level of workload, category five. Trying to talk on a smartphone or a car audio system, or even to a passenger, forces the brain to throttle back and forth between talking and listening.20 If something unexpected happens while you’re talking, you’re not going to be able to respond to it quickly enough. The brain is so preoccupied with processing your talking that it cannot process what is in your visual field, causing ‘inattention blindness.’ A red traffic light or bicyclist may be right in front of you, but you literally do not see it because your brain is focused on the workload of talking. “The attentional network that is responsible for processing what you see around you is doing something else,” Dr. Strayer said in a telephone interview with me in April 24, 2015. “If you take your eyes off the road to do anything—to read, to dial, to surf the Internet, check stocks, or read newspapers, it causes problems and they start to crop up immediately. The data suggests that eyes off the road for more than 2.5 seconds increases the crash risk.”
Cell phones and in-dash technology are not the only types of distractions causing this epidemic. Three categories of distraction sum up all the ways we can become impaired while driving: visual, manual, and cognitive (mental). A visual distraction takes your eyes off the road, and this includes looking at your phone to read a text, email, map, or see who is calling; watching your GPS or a video; or looking into your rearview or visor mirror or at your fellow passengers. Visual distractions may also involve non-avoidable situations like poor weather or bright sun. Manual or mechanical distractions include interacting with a cell phone by hand texting, dialing, using a navigation system, and adjusting a radio or any other type of electronic device. As our family learned, a manual distraction also includes reaching for a napkin.
My daughter Shreya was killed as a passenger in a car when the driver reached out for a napkin. Of course, activities like holding a pet, eating, drinking, putting on makeup, and any type of grooming cause manual distraction by loosening a driver’s hold on the steering wheel. The third category, cognitive (mental) distraction, is a complicated mix of visual, manual, and thought processes that hijack the driver’s attention. Having a conversation with co-passengers or with someone on the phone, even when you’re talking hands-free, takes your mind off the road in front of your eyes and creates cognitive distraction. It is true that individually each of the above distractions can cause a fatal crash, but texting seems to be the most dangerous distraction of all. It involves all three types of distractions: visual, manual, and cognitive. Here is where we get to the epidemic proportions: during daylight hours on any given day, about 660,000 American drivers are using a cell phone or other electronic device. Research shows that every time you reach for the phone, tap a button or punch in a number, or write out a text or email, you are three times more likely to get into a crash (www.distraction.gov).
In preparation for the “100 Deadliest Days”, AAA encourages parents to educate their teen about the dangers of distracted driving and monitor their actions behind the wheel. Parents should:
- Have conversations early and often about the dangers of distraction.
- Make a parent-teen driving agreement that sets family rules against distracted driving.
- Teach by example and minimize distractions when driving.
I would love to hear back from the readers. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also during this time of graduation parties, I suggest you consider the book ‘ONE SPLIT SECOND’ as a graduation gift. Our own Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote the Foreword.
Vijay Dixit, Chairman
Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation