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.
Why We Can't Concentrate
Cell phones are by no means the only things screaming for drivers' attention, although they are certainly the most studied. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 61 percent of adults regularly talk on the phone while they're driving; other studies have put that number as high as 80 percent. And 17 percent of subjects in the Pew study say they have been so distracted by their phone that they've hit an object or a person.
Talking on the phone makes people four times as likely to crash, but texting makes a crash 23 times more likely. Even eating behind the wheel is a constant threat. A study in England found that drivers are nearly twice as likely to crash when munching or drinking behind the wheel. And think about this: These actions are more time-consuming than using a phone. While glancing at an incoming call takes a nanosecond, putting sweetener in your latte requires much more attention.
Experts are no longer shocked by the things some drivers do behind the wheel. The most compelling data comes from "naturalistic" research, which involves putting cameras inside vehicles for up to 18 months, says Louis Tijerina, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in distraction for the Ford Motor Company. In one such study, some startling video footage revealed drivers doing things like putting in eyedrops, applying makeup, brushing or flossing their teeth, reading, and writing.
All of these behaviors make it very hard to react in time to prevent an accident. It takes the average driver about .25 seconds to spot a hazard (like a child stepping into the street), another .25 seconds to decide how to respond, and then 3 seconds for the brakes to engage. If he were driving at 30 mph, he'd need 132 feet to stop. Because a distracted driver needs more time to notice the danger, he would require 203 feet in order to stop in the same scenario.
Amazingly, drivers are even careless when they're driving in a school zone. In one study conducted by Safe Kids USA, a national organization dedicated to preventing childhood injuries, researchers watched more than 40,000 vehicles -- driven by parents and nonparents alike -- as they drove through school zones. One in six drivers were visibly distracted, because they were talking on a phone, eating, reading, grooming, or reaching behind them. Women were more likely to be inattentive drivers (187 per 1,000) than men (154 per 1,000). Even more disturbing? The bigger -- and more potentially damaging -- the vehicle, the more likely a driver was to be in la-la land. Owners of SUVs, pickups, and minivans had higher distraction scores than those of regular cars, perhaps because drivers of larger vehicles tend to feel better protected.
Experts are trying to understand why people drive dangerously in school zones. In a recent Canadian safety-awareness campaign, traffic intersections near schools were observed. Among the findings: Being in a congested area may make drivers ignore road rules. "It elevates motorists' stress and anxiety levels, so they react impatiently, and following rules goes out the window," says Brent Dozzi, a local roads official in West Vancouver, British Columbia.
Even parents who are good drivers justify their high-risk moves in a school zone, adds David Dunne, director of Vancouver's BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation. "They rationalize why it's okay for them to check their phone -- it's just for a second, they're running late, they have an appointment after school," he says. "And when parents see other parents doing it, they think it's okay if they do it too."
Regaining Our Senses
Local and state laws are starting to address the technology piece of the problem. Nine states now ban talking on handheld cell phones (28 states ban all cell-phone use for novice drivers), and 30 states have outlawed texting while driving, reports the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And drivers are indeed getting tickets if they violate these laws. The only glitch? Laws requiring hands-free devices over handheld ones don't seem to improve driver safety. "There's been no apparent reduction in the number of crashes," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the IIHS. "We don't fully understand why that is."
It may be, in part, because an object doesn't need to physically be in your hand to be an interference. A built-in DVD player, for example, can be deadly if a parent tries to restart Up in heavy traffic. "However, it can also reduce driver distractions if it keeps a young child content," points out McCartt. Monkeying around with your GPS while navigating in a strange neighborhood is dicey -- but then again, safely using a voice-activated unit is a big improvement over struggling with a map.
Experts hope that new technology will help drivers change their ways. For months after he hit his neighbor, Matt Howard couldn't shake his distress. "I kept thinking, I am not trying to be a menace to society. But if I'm that addicted to my mobile device -- if I can't help myself when I hear that little 'ding' that says I have e-mail -- how can I stop myself? What is the equivalent of Nicorette for someone like me?" That led the father of three to create ZoomSafer, a mobile-phone application (see "De-Fang Your Phone," on page 5).
Meanwhile, car companies are trying to design safer vehicles. Ford's SYNC system, for example, allows drivers to request a song on their iPod or make a phone call with voice commands, says John Shutko, a technical specialist with Ford. "We even designed our DVD player so that it is almost impossible to program by reaching back from the front seat, just to take that temptation away from parents," he explains.
Honda has solutions, too, some of them decidedly low-tech, including a fold-down trash ring in the backseat of its Odyssey minivan. "It sounds like a minor thing, but kids always seem to want to hand off their garbage, and having the trash bag where they can reach it reduces the distraction for the driver," says Chris Martin, a Honda spokesperson.
New Subarus come with Bluetooth for hands-free phone calls, and radio controls are right on the steering wheel. Clocks are now higher up on the dashboard to minimize the need to look away from the road, says Ken Lin, director of product management. Some owners aren't thrilled with these features, he says. "You can't program our GPS while the car is moving -- you have to pull over. We get calls all the time asking about how to disable that feature, but it's just not safe to do so."
The next time you go car-shopping, ask dealers about anti-distraction designs, which may include steering-wheel controls, voice-activated telephones and driving features, and new devices called "conversation mirrors," which are placed on the ceiling and allow you to quickly glance up and see who's pinching whom.
In the future, cars will be designed with even more safety features. In Japan, Subarus are already equipped with adaptive cruise control, which automatically maintains a safe distance between you and the car in front of you, and sensors that detect when you've crossed a lane marker without using a turn signal. (Pricier brands, including Mercedes-Benz, already offer such features in many of their vehicles in the U.S.)
But changing your ingrained habits isn't easy, especially if you consider your drives to be quality family time, as many parents do. "The majority of time I spend with my kids is during our commute -- when they are very needy, tired, and hungry," says Vosdoganes. "They want to tell me about their day. They want gum. They want me to turn on Radio Disney, and they want the exact song they like to be on."
Still, Vosdoganes realizes that she is constantly under the microscope because her children are now old enough to point out her moving violations. "We don't know exactly at what age children begin absorbing their parents' driving habits, but we are certain it starts very early," says Dr. Tijerina. In the same way that they repeat the bad words you may say, you can be certain your kids are soaking in your worst driving habits.
"My children scold me and say, 'You're not supposed to text and drive,'" says Vosdoganes. "I tell them that I really am trying to change. I say, 'I want you to be safe drivers when you grow up.'"
4 Rules For Focused Driving
- Feed the kids a meal or snack before leaving. Quieting the troops with endless juice boxes encourages them to make food demands in the car -- which you can't safely accommodate.
- Feed yourself at home too. Drinking and eating while driving are linked to higher crash rates.
- Before getting into the car, turn off your cell phone, and place it in the backseat, in the glove compartment, or even in the trunk. If you must keep it on, use ringtones to identify the few calls you'll answer: for example, ones from the sitter or your kids. Tell everyone else you won't answer when you're behind the wheel.
- Promise yourself that you won't touch any other device, such as a GPS or a DVD player, unless you pull the car over first. (Lay down a firm "Mom can't touch them while she's driving" rule.)
De-Fang Your Phone
Don't trust yourself to stick to the "No Phone" rule on a day-to-day basis? Using your phone's internal GPS, these apps can detect when you're driving and automatically block calls, texts, and e-mails. Three to check out:
This app reads you your text messages, allows voice response, and has customizable auto-replies (for Android, iPhone, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile). Download it free at drivesafe.ly.
This will let you block incoming calls, texts, and e-mails, sending a response that you are driving and will answer when you can. You can also customize it to allow only certain callers -- like your child-care provider -- to get through (for Blackberry and Windows Movile). $2.95 a month.
This was created by a mother who had a driving scare with her teenage son. It automatically sends incoming calls to voicemail and holds text messages; (for Blackberry and Android) $49.95 per year, or $4.95 a month.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Parents magazine.
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