The Dangers of Distracted Driving

By Rebecca Carl, MD

When I first got my learner’s permit as a teenager, I felt like driving took so much energy and concentration. There were so many details to remember: adjusting my mirrors, signaling for lane changes, remembering which pedal was for gas and which was the brake. Now, for me and for most long-time drivers, driving feels easy and we perform these tasks subconsciously (though signaling for a lane change seems to be difficult to remember for quite a few folks in the Chicago area).

Even though driving seems like second nature to many people, driving is a complex task that uses several different regions in the brain. Distracted driving means performing tasks that compete for the attention required to operate a motor vehicle. I’ve seen drivers engaged in many other activities while behind the wheel such as putting on makeup, shaving or looking at a map.

And now that smart devices are nearly universal, talking on the phone and texting while driving have become commonplace.

Causes of Distracted Driving

Distracted driving can involve:

  • Manual distraction, like taking your hands off the wheel to do another activity
  • Visual distraction, like looking away from the road
  • Cognitive distraction, like focusing your attention on another activity
  • Texting and other forms of smart device use, such as checking social media, involve all three types of distraction

Distracted Driving Facts

Here are 10 eye-opening facts about distracted driving:

  1. The number one cause of death from age 1 to 44 is unintentional injuries.
  2. Between the ages of 5 and 24, motor vehicle injuries are the top causes of injury death.
  3. In 2013, distracted driving claimed more than 3,100 lives and caused more than 420,000 injuries.
  4. It is estimated that ¼ of motor vehicle collisions involve the use a cell phone or smart device, though the actual number may be much higher. We can’t be sure because there is no effective way of tracking all smart device use.
  5. Talking on a hands-free or handheld cell phone increases the risk of being in a crash by 4 times. This can slow a driver’s reaction as much as a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent.
  6. Texting increases crash risk by a factor of 23—this is the same as the risk of being involved in a crash with a blood alcohol level of 0.19 (over 2 times the legal limit in Illinois).
  7. Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, this means driving the length of a football field with closed eyes.
  8. Youngest drivers have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes, with 16 percent of distracted-driving crashes involving drivers under the age of 20.
  9. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of close calls involve some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event.
  10. Inattention is also the main cause of 93 percent of rear-end crashes.

While most states regulate cell phone use and prohibit texting while driving, many of the laws were enacted before smart phones were commonplace. In most areas, enforcement of prohibitions on cell phone and smart device is inconsistent.

Adolescent drivers have the highest rates of motor vehicle collisions due, in large part, to the fact that they are novice drivers. Teens and young adults are also the most likely to use devices while operating a motor vehicle. Parents can use smart devices to limit distracted driving. Apps like Live2txt and AT&T’s DriveMode prevent texting while driving and some will alert parents to dangerous driving behaviors. Parents and other adults can promote motor vehicle safety by talking to teens about distracted driving, and by modeling behavior and devoting their full attention to the road.

Dr. Rebecca Carl is an attending physician in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine.

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