Whether you’re browsing the internet, playing Pokémon Go, or sending a quick text to let someone know you’re on your way, anything that takes your eyes off the road when you’re behind the wheel is putting you and other drivers at risk.
In fact, using a handheld device while driving can be even more distracting than driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as it makes you twice as likely to take your eyes off of the road.
While drink-driving has received significant media attention over the past few decades, the dangers of distracted driving are seemingly less well known. Even though the Road Safety Act of 2006 made using a mobile device while driving illegal, according to a 2014 government study 1.6 percent of drivers in England and Scotland still use mobile phones while driving. That is more than 500,000 people using distracting handheld devices while behind the wheel.
What is distracted driving?
Distracted driving is more than just driving while using a mobile phone. Anything that takes your focus away from your driving is a distraction, and they can be broken down into three different categories.
A visual distraction is anything that causes you to take your eyes off the road. Looking at your satnav is an example, as you have to shift your focus away from where you’re going to look at the screen. Car manufacturers have been working to position satnavs and information screens as high on the dashboard as possible to minimise the distance your eyes have to travel.
Taking your hands off of the steering wheel for any reason is a manual distraction. Eating in the car or drinking a coffee is an example of this. Manual distractions are probably the most common type of distraction, as it can be as simple as changing a radio station or adjusting the air-conditioning.
The least obvious of the three, a cognitive distraction, is when you are thinking about something other than driving. This can be anything from daydreaming to having a conversation with your passengers, and it’s something that almost every driver would have to admit they have done on many occasions.
While anything from eating a burger to putting on makeup can be a form of distracted driving, what makes mobile phone use so dangerous is that it is an example of all three categories at once.
The move by most car manufacturers towards large touchscreen infotainments systems is a real issue for distracted driving, as touchscreens require significantly more attention from the user to use – largely because the buttons are not in one fixed place and there is no real haptic feedback to know if you have successfully pressed the right button. You need to look carefully to see where you need to be touching the screen and then take your hand off the wheel for quite some time to touch the screen. Because the car is moving and the button positions are not consistent, it requires considerable cognitive effort compared to pushing physical buttons.
Obviously not every distraction is going to result in a fiery car crash, but it’s also impossible to argue with the fact that you can’t be prioritising your attention on your driving if you are attending to something else at the same time. If something happens in front of you while your focus is elsewhere, at best it will give you less time to react once you return your focus to your driving. At worst, an accident can happen in a flash and you will never know what hit you (or what you hit).
You don’t have to take it for granted that distracted driving is dangerous. Just look at the statistics. According to data from 2013, mobile phone use was a factor in 22% of all fatal road traffic accidents.
Sending or receiving a text message or looking at a roadside object increases your chance of being in an accident by 3.9 times. Reaching for a cell phone increases your risk factor by 7.1, and dialling a phone increases it by 8.3 times.
Drive safe, not distracted
Remember that if your hands off the wheel and you are looking away from the road, you may not be able to react fast enough to avoid a collision. Keep yourself and others safe by keeping your hands, mind, and eyes focused on driving.