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."