Anyone who thinks America's distracted driving problem is all about texting teens needs to take a closer look at what's going on in the minivan one lane over. Susan Vosdoganes might be the driver you see. "I'm a horrible offender," admits the Queen Creek, Arizona, mom, who spends two hours in the car each day, driving her kids, 5 and 7, to school. "I find myself driving with my knees while I hand out breakfast and drinks like a flight attendant. I referee arguments. Once, I even reached back to deflect a carsick kid's vomit out a window with a sun visor. The worst part is that I had a cousin who died in a car crash (she was trying to get something off the floor for her child), and it still hasn't stopped me from making these bad choices."
Then there's Matt Howard, who was pulling out of his driveway one morning in a quiet Virginia suburb when his BlackBerry chimed. "I looked down to check my e-mail, and as I looked up, I saw that I was driving right into a 9-year-old on a bike. Thank God he was okay," says Howard. "But I knew I could have killed him, and I felt sick to my stomach. The poor kid was as white as a ghost and shaking as I helped him up. It was an eye-opening experience."
Each weekday, Elisabeth LaMouria loads her three boys, ages 18 months, 2, and 4, into car seats and then drives her husband to work. It can be an intense ride: "The youngest one hates the car, so we play the music really loud, and everyone drums on the ceiling. If he still cries, I reach back and rub his foot. I'm grateful that we've never been in a crash," says the Orlando mom, admitting that she's rummaged around for dropped toys, offered bottles, and even changed a DVD while she was driving.
It's no wonder that public-safety experts are calling these interruptions a deadly epidemic. Distracted driving is thought to be the cause of 80 percent of all crashes, says Kate Hollcraft, a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance. And adults are the biggest threat, reports the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Take texting: About 27 percent of adults admit they have texted while driving, compared with 26 percent of teens. "However, parents of young children are especially vulnerable to distractions," says Hollcraft. In fact, research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that children are about four times as distracting to drivers as adult passengers are, while babies make it eight times harder to concentrate. Hollcraft experiences this firsthand, commuting daily with her 2?-year-old, who stays in Allstate's onsite day-care center. "She has favorite songs she wants played over and over, and to make her happy I'll often fiddle with the CD instead of keeping my eyes on the road."
Inattentive drivers have caused more than 27,000 deaths since 2009, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Their multitasking led to 448,000 injuries in 2009 alone. And while the federal agency doesn't keep statistics on how many of those drivers had small children on board, experts say that the in-car chaos that kids can cause -- as well as the increasing time pressures on working parents and widespread use of mobile devices -- put even the most safety-conscious families at risk.