Distracted Driving

Distracted driving – It’s not just for kids

A friend recently called me a crusader. I think she was being kind and what she really wanted to say was that I was a real pain in her rear. I am obsessed with distracted driving. I can’t resist an opportunity to convey the facts and reprimand the people I know and love – not to mention the guy in the next lane.

In conversations about cell phones in the car, I respond with such overbearing rightness. But when nearly 90 percent of new cars have built in wireless technology, when the boss expects a call to be answered during the commute home – when every new app urges us to try one more thing, the message is not so clear. And a behavior change that may seem simple (just put it down) involves more than my well intentioned plea.

Here are more measured responses to some of the things I have heard from fellow parents – and the kids who rat on them.

“I use the phone in the car but I am hands-free”
It seems sensible – if your hands are on the wheel and your eyes are on the road it should be safe to talk on the phone. But drivers on a cell phone – regardless of whether it is hand-held or hands-free – can fail to see over 50 percent of their surroundings and are at least four times more likely to crash.

Hands-free and voice-activated systems are marketed to make us feel like we are doing the right thing. But talking to a disembodied voice – whether we are strategizing with a co-worker or ordering takeout from Grilly’s – is a cognitive distraction causing the brain to slow down and mess up. In fact, studies show that driving hands-free may actually worsen the risk by leading to a false sense of security.

“I need to know my kid arrived safe”
The only time I was grounded in high school was when I took the car and returned home later than I said I would. My dad had no way to reach me. Today he could, but I hope he wouldn’t. In numerous surveys, over half of teens who report taking and texting while driving are responding to and updating a parent. “My mom expects me to,” a teen once told me. “I worry, so I check in” – a fellow mom admitted.

After decades, we have achieved an extraordinary turnaround in drunk driving behavior. Drunk driving deaths are down 24 percent, and in teens the rate has fallen 59 percent. But distracted driving is rising in all populations, and has eclipsed drunk driving as the leading cause of teen death, causing over 3,000 fatalities each year.
Instead of calling or texting your teen in the car – use an app that will tell you they have arrived safely. (Free resources below).

“My mom texts and steers with her knees!”
Texting drivers are 23 times more likely to crash. I don’t know if there is a statistic for texting while driving with your knees, but it can’t be pretty. Our kids are watching, and calling us out on our bad behavior. Unfortunately, even bad behavior can seem legitimate or ‘not so bad’ when a parent does it – and our kids still replicate our actions, even when they know we are off the charts wrong.

Seventy-seven percent of teens interviewed in a Pew Internet/AT&T study report that adults tell them not to text while driving, yet do it themselves, “all the time.” In the survey of 1,300 teens, parent behavior like texting and talking while driving and also driving without a seatbelt was described as “crazy … it totally freaks me out.” Yet, the number of teens who admitted to texting and driving neatly paralleled the number who said they had watched a parent do the very same thing.

“I’m really good at it”
A fellow mom recently said this to me, referring to her perceived talent for multitasking. The idea that because we are older, more experienced or “really good at it” we can multitask is a myth. Imaging technology shows that the brain is capable of focusing on only one thing at a time. While we think we are attending to multiple things at once (navigating an intersection, listening to a conference call) the brain is actually shuttling rapidly between tasks, doing each more slowly, less well and not always in the right order. MRI scans of test subjects as they are asked to do more than one thing at a time reveals that the brain pauses before each new task. Cognitive science has repeatedly shown our limited capacity for attention.

Cognitive researcher David Strayer who has looked at attention science for over two decades – wanted to know if there was anyone out there who could talk on a cell phone and focus on the task of driving. Using a high fidelity simulator, he studied people as they talked on a cell phone while driving – and determined that the rapid task switching required by this challenge left drivers as impaired as if they’d had two to three drinks: 97 percent of participants failed the test (the two percent of ‘supertaskers’ who passed are thought to have a keener talent for blocking distraction, and possibly also a genetic advantage).

For the overwhelming majority of drivers, sending a quick text, dialing the phone, even executing a voice command causes lingering distraction lasting for up to 27 seconds. Even after putting down the phone or turning away from the navigation system drivers are not fully engaged with the task of driving. The task switching brain is simply checked out.

“I know I have to stop”

Here are 5 things you can do right now:

  • Attend a free Safe Driving workshop with your teen: March 5, 11:00-12:30pm, San Anselmo Library. RSVP at rvhcc.com.
  • Read A Deadly Wandering and meet author Matt Richtel, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on this topic. April 7, 6:30-8:30pm, Drake High School. RSVP at rvhcc.com.
  • Download a free app that will turn off the phone during driving. LifeSaver will auto-detect driving and lock down the phone while the car is in motion. A parent portal will show driver behavior, offer safe driving incentives like iTunes cards and provide arrival notification. AT&T’s Drive Mode turns off the phone when the car is moving, silences and automatically replies to text messages, alerts the sender that you are driving and notifies parents if a teen drivers tries to disable the device. Both apps are free, and work with Android and iPhones.
  • Watch true stories and video messages made by parents and teens.
  • Listen to messages from drivers and affected family members. Ask yourself: what would you give up to change your child’s life?
  • Take the Focused Driver Challenge and learn more about why your actions matter.

Alyson Geller is a health writer and director of Heads Up distracted driving awareness and education. Contact her at alysong1@comcast.net

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