Being Driven To Distraction
It’s a fairly common scene. A man is seated talking to his wife, each drinking a cup of coffee. He’s balancing a donut on his stomach and takes a call on the phone. The CD player is turned up and he’s continually trying to quiet the kids and stop them from tossing the football around. It could be your average American living room on a Saturday night. Only the scene is not taking place in their home. He and his family are just two feet away from you--driving 60 miles an hour with 3,000 pounds of steel under him. And, the last thing on his mind is his driving.
The auto insurance industry has a special interest in people like him. When distracted drivers absentmindedly veer into the next lane or rear end the car ahead, they cost policyholders not only millions of dollars a year, but also far too many lives. There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence and much talk in the halls of state and local legislatures regarding the dangers of driving distractions. But, the results and analysis of the Response Insurance National Driving Habits Surveys have for the first time given credence to a perception among drivers that has been growing over the last couple of years: American drivers are preoccupied and distracted and they are now one of the greatest dangers on the road today.
When asked what drivers fear the most about other drivers, aggressive driving and drunk driving are now taking second and third place to the fear that the other driver is simply not paying sufficient attention to the road. Unfortunately, their fears are well founded. People are putting a higher priority on making better use of their time, than getting to their destination safely. The survey revealed that 76 percent of all drivers are engaged in activities that take their attention from the road. In many cases the distractions have resulted in accidents or near-accidents.
According to the survey 57 percent of drivers are eating while on the road. 32 percent are reading and writing and 17 percent are combing hair. Amazingly, 20 percent are so busy behind the wheel they admit to having steered the car with their thighs.
We have all observed driver’s swerving from lane to lane without looking, slowing down and then speeding up for no apparent reason, or sailing though an intersection oblivious to the world around them. "What are they thinking?" you wonder to yourself. When you pull ahead to get out of their way, you see the cell phone at their ear and it all begins to make sense to you.
Cell phone use while driving has been receiving much of the attention of late and with good reason. Although the survey revealed American drivers being distracted by many activities, the results clearly point to the inherent dangers of cell phone usage while driving.
Twenty-nine percent of those interviewed indicated they routinely phone and drive, and 13 percent of them reported cell phone use has either caused or nearly caused them to get into an accident. As the problem becomes increasingly worrisome and commonplace, local and state governments are being implored to act. Many, among them New York State, are responding with restrictions, particularly on the use of handheld cell phones. However, that response may be misplaced. There is no evidence that the physical act of holding a phone and punching in the number are the principle causes of this current rash of erratic and inattentive driving. Other, more physically challenging activities, such as eating, drinking and combing one’s hair, result in half the number of incidents. If they are being honest with themselves, every driver, whether a cell phone user or merely an observer of the scene, knows that it is the mental distraction of being engaged in a conversation that is the problem. The detached nature of telephone communication demands added attention by the participants. Unfortunately, it is a demand that can have tragic consequences on the road.
This country went through a similar challenge a few years ago regarding drunk driving. Laws prohibiting driving with an open bottle of beer or alcohol and driving over the legal blood-alcohol limit had been on the books for decades. But what began turning the tide in the battle against driving while intoxicated was a massive education campaign by the private and public sector to change the mindset of the public.
There is a new battle currently underway on America’s roads. This one is literally a battle for the drivers’ mind. As cars become extensions of the home and office and continue to be loaded up by automakers with "amenities" that make multi-tasking more accessible, drivers are increasingly engaging in activities that take their hands and, more importantly, their focus of attention off the road. It is a battle that will not be won by making eating, drinking coffee, listening to the radio or talking on a handheld cell phone illegal. The battle will be won by convincing drivers that paying attention to the road is more important than juggling a sandwich, putting every hair in place or even letting your spouse know that you’ll be home in five minutes. This is a battle that all drivers have an interest in winning.
Mory Katz is chairman of Response Insurance, an auto insurance agency which sponsored Response Insurance National Driving Habits Surveys.