When behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, your full attention is crucial—for your own safety as well as that of your passengers, other motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Yet drivers often engage in potentially dangerous secondary activities that distract from the demands of driving and increase accident risk.
What exactly constitutes a “driving distraction“? Simply put, distractions are anything that diverts your focus away from operating the vehicle. There are various categories of distractions:
Visual distractions involve taking one’s eyes off the road, which reduces situational awareness and reaction times. Common examples include:
- Checking or viewing a smartphone, GPS device, or other electronic screen
- Adjusting vehicle controls like climate settings or infotainment systems
- Looking at external sights billboards, events, or people along the roadside
- Glancing frequently into mirrors to monitor young children in the backseat
Even a brief eyes-off-road glance can result in missing critical information needed to avoid crashes or dangerous situations.
Manual distractions require removing one or both hands from the steering wheel to manipulate an object or device. This impacts vehicular control and also constitutes a visual distraction. Manual distractions include activities like:
- Texting or otherwise operating a mobile device
- Adjusting climate/radio settings using touch screens or buttons
- Reaching for food, beverages, or other items inside the vehicle
- Interacting with pets or children in the backseat
- Smoking cigarettes or other substances
Both hands should remain on the steering wheel whenever safely possible to maintain full control.
Cognitive (mental) distractions happen when our minds are focused on thoughts other than driving. Even without visual or manual distraction, cognitive distractions alone can dangerously divert attention from the road.
Thinking about intensive subjects reduces our processing capacity for driving stimuli and tasks. Examples include:
- Stressful conversations with passengers
- Daydreaming or lost in thought
- Problem-solving work issues
- Distressing emotions like anger or sadness
- Intense engagement with media like audiobooks or podcasts
Driving Under the Influence
Driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol and other intoxicating drugs constitutes an especially hazardous form of cognitive impairment and distraction.
Substances like cannabis, cocaine, opioids, and amphetamines alter perception, decision-making abilities, reaction times, and other essential driving skills. Even small amounts can prove dangerous.
Prescription medications—especially sedatives, antidepressants, and opioids—also impact driving capacity and heighten crash risk despite legal status. Warning labels should be reviewed before getting behind the wheel.
Combining Multiple Distractions
Simultaneously engaging in multiple distracted behaviors multiplies accident risk exponentially. Individual distractions may seem minor alone, but combining types greatly intensifies the threat to safety.
For instance, the visual distraction of viewing a phone compounds enormously with the manual distraction of holding the device while manipulating a touch screen with one’s fingers. Adding the cognitive distraction of emotionally charged conversation or thought further reduces the brain’s ability to process driving stimuli and respond appropriately.
Even the most expert drivers cannot consciously focus on operating a moving vehicle while simultaneously executing a secondary task requiring visual, manual, and cognitive resources. Attempting activities like texting or video calling while behind the wheel should be treated as attempted vehicular negligence or manslaughter in the event of fatalities, due to utterly disregarding public safety.
Why Drivers Engage in Unsafe Behaviors
If driving distractions clearly heighten crash risk, why do motorists continue to engage in them? Reasons include:
- Underestimating danger—Drivers often downplay hazards by overestimating their skill level and ability to multitask. Familiar roads, light traffic, and clear weather also lead to underestimating risk.
- Habit and addiction—Once distraction-causing behaviors like smartphone use become ingrained habits, they become hard to resist. Social media and device use also have addictive qualities affecting self-restraint.
- Lack of legal deterrent—Laws banning texting and handheld calling exist in most states. But enforcement remains limited, penalties mild, and hands-free talking/texting remains legal despite hazards. Stricter regulation could motivate behavior change.
- Overconfidence in vehicle safety features—Safety advances like collision warning systems and automatic braking may inadvertently encourage distraction by improving crash outcomes. However, no technology yet exists to fully compensate for drivers’ visual and cognitive disengagement. The only proven safety feature is conscious human focus.
- Lack of social stigma—Although drunk driving now garners widespread public disapproval, using phones while driving remains socially tolerated. Further public awareness campaigns linking phone distractions to human tragedy could help overcome the normalization of the practice.
- Denial—Our minds often rationalize our own risky behaviors as being within the realm of reasonable safety, even as we harshly judge others’ identical behaviors. Admitting dissonance between our actions and values causes mental discomfort. Social norming and legal pressures can assist in overcoming these subconscious distortions.
Mitigating Driving Distraction Hazards
Because driving distractions stem largely from ingrained habits and normalized behaviors, reducing them requires a commitment to making fundamental culture and attitude shifts around transportation safety. Proven and potential mitigation strategies include:
- Public awareness campaigns—Media messages demonstrate the tragic costs of distractions while positively reinforcing attentive driving norms. Emotionally compelling ads can provoke culture change and self-restraint.
- Educational programs—School and workplace driver safety programs underscore crash mechanisms and teach coping strategies for driving temptation and anxiety. Emphasizing personal consequences also reduces motivations for distraction.
- Legislative action—Laws strictly curtailing phone and other device manipulation coupled with expanded enforcement mechanisms send a message that distracted driving carries severe legal and financial consequences.
- Automotive technology—Emerging semi-autonomous features like automatic braking, lane-centering, and adaptive cruise control relieve drivers of basic operational tasks that could warrant distraction. Fully autonomous self-driving vehicles could someday eliminate distraction entirely. However, human attention likely remains necessary as a backup for years.
- Apps and settings—Phone apps can block distracting functions when traveling over a certain speed. Enabling do-not-disturb and airplane mode before driving also helps. However, motivation to actively use such tools is essential for impact.
- Passenger intervention—Passengers play a vital role in speaking up when drivers engage in distraction, encouraging stopping until able to safely focus. Family and friends can mutually commit to creating distraction-free zones while riding together.
- Personal commitment—Safety ultimately comes down to each driver pledging to operate vehicles free of unnecessary visual, manual, or cognitive distractions. Prioritizing life preservation over momentary behaviors or communication can guide better choices before getting behind the wheel.
The only guaranteed way to maximize driving safety is by simplifying moving vehicles into distraction-free transportation devices rather than mobile offices, restaurants, or living rooms. Just as vigilant pilots constantly scan flight instruments to avoid catastrophe, attentive drivers tune out all superfluous stimuli and channel mental resources toward the sole task of piloting a speeding metal machine among vulnerable road users. Lives depend on it.
Has someone you love suffered harm due to a distracted driver? At Husain Law + Associates — Houston Accident & Injury Lawyers, P.C., our legal team stands ready to pursue maximum compensation for your losses while holding negligent parties fully accountable. Call us today for a free case review at (713) 804-8149 to learn your options. Don’t delay in safeguarding your legal rights after an accident caused by a distracted driver. We’re here to help you recover.