NEWS | May 4, 2021

Distracted Driving: A Safety Issue to Keep Eyes On

By Leslie Tomaino, Naval Safety Center Safety Promotions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly eight people in the United States die in crashes each day that reportedly involve a distracted driver. Distracted driving can be anything that takes your attention away from driving. Common examples include sending text messages, talking on a cell phone, using a navigation system and eating while driving. These are just a few examples of distracted driving, but anything that pulls your attention away from the road can endanger you, your passengers and others on the road.

There are three main distractions: visual, manual and cognitive.

First, visual distraction is taking your eyes off the road while driving, such as looking at a passenger or a roadside distraction. When drivers take their eyes off the road, even for a split second, they take their focus off the road as well. It makes these distractions especially dangerous because drivers cannot consistently assess their surroundings.

Second, manual distraction, is taking your hands off the steering wheel while driving, for any reason, for any amount of time. Without both hands on the wheel, your reaction time suffers along with your ability to steer. Examples include eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting the radio or doing one’s makeup. If you were doing any of these actions, and a deer darted out in front of you, it takes at least a second to bring your hand back, and in that instant, you could crash right into the deer. Not driving with two hands may cause you to veer off the road or into oncoming traffic.

Third, cognitive distraction is taking your mind off driving. The CDC adds that sending or reading a text at 55 mph is like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. Cognitive distractions are deceivingly dangerous because you can look like you are doing everything right. You have your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel, but you are still distracted if your mind is drifting. Simply put, when something else has captured your attention, you will likely have a hard time concentrating. You will not be as alert, which means you will not be as safe. Examples of this behavior include having a conversation on a hands-free device, talking to a passenger or listening to a podcast or audiobook.

What about texting? What type of distraction is this everyday activity? Texting is actually the triple threat that falls into all three distraction categories. When using your cell phone, you not only take your eyes off the road, but you also take your hands off the wheel and mind off driving. The potential for death when using a cell phone while driving has prompted the passing of laws, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).

Many might argue that they are multi-taskers and can drive safely while doing several activities. Multi-tasking is a myth. The human brain does not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. The brain can juggle tasks rapidly, which leads us to believe falsely we are doing two tasks simultaneously. In reality, the brain is switching attention between tasks and performing only one at a time.

Capt. Donald Pennington, Naval Station Norfolk Police instructor and NAVSTA Norfolk Safe Driving Council coordinator, reminds us that military bases have their own additional rules as well. He notes the following from NAVSTANORINST 5100.12D, pg. 7: (e), which “prohibits the use of any cell phone/texting or driver’s distractions (i.e., eating, applying makeup, getting dressed, reading, etc.) while operating a motor vehicle on Naval Station Norfolk. Being cited for such while onboard the Naval Station Norfolk can have your driving privileges suspended for six months to indefinitely.” 

Pennington encourages people to look up their military installations and their state’s guidance and policies about operating motor vehicles.

The following habits should become as automatic as putting on your seat belt and can help keep yourself safe on the road.

Once in your car, put your phone out of sight and out of reach, so you are not tempted to use it. If you need to use a navigation app, use a dash mount so you do not have to take your hands off the steering wheel. Take advantage of the in-car system if you have one. Most new vehicles offer voice commands for paired phones as well as auto and carplay interfaces that resemble your phone’s screen.

Drop the earbuds. Some drivers use them to answer calls in cars that lack Bluetooth or for listening to music. That is not safe. Lastly, if you must regularly answer phone calls, invest in an aftermarket Bluetooth system. You can stay hands-free and keep your ears open. There are many options online.
You follow the rules, but how do you keep yourself safe from others who may disregard common sense and laws? While on the road, watch for erratic or inappropriate driving and give those vehicles a wide berth. This behavior includes a car that is veering from edge to edge inside a lane or missing traffic cues, such as failing to accelerate when a light turns green, slowing and speeding up in the lane without logic, riding the brakes or a driver whose head is down.

“I have also noticed recently that pedestrians in crosswalks are walking distracted, actually texting and talking on cell phones while walking,” said Pennington. “This behavior is extremely dangerous. Safety falls upon everyone, driver and pedestrian. Wait until you have turned your vehicle off before you place that call, read or respond to a text message or email – save your money and possibly someone’s life.”

For more distracted driving information, visit www.distraction.gov. Distraction.gov is the official U.S. government website for information on the subject of distracted driving. It contains statistics, laws, research, media and many other resources on distracted driving. For a current list of distracted driving laws by state, view this GHSA chart which is up to date as of April 2021:  https://www.ghsa.org/sites/default/files/2021-04/DistractedDrivingLawChart-April21Edit3.pdf  or the National Safety Council website’s tools and resources at https://www.nsc.org/road