There are times when we have no choice but to entrust our fate to others. We pray the attending surgeon is having a good day. We hope the pilot squeezed in a nap before our red-eye flight. But it doesn’t take a triple-bypass or turbulence at 30,000 feet to be vitally dependent on the competence of people around us—it happens every time we get into a car.
Unlike our prosaic contribution to major surgeries and white-knuckle flights, road travel is a two-way street. A safe trip relies on our own performance, as well as the actions of faceless figures behind the wheels of all the other vehicles within striking distance.
Alert drivers not only minimize the likelihood of causing accidents, they often avert them by counteracting the reckless, impatient, or inattentive maneuvers of others.
Separated by a solid line and a few feet of compromise, personal cars and 10-tonne commercial transports speed past each from opposite directions. Each intersection is a new test, as aggressive—or oblivious—motorists push the limits with traffic signals and invoke dubious right-of-way privileges.
A second or two of inattention can be the difference between getting home safely and not getting home at all.
If this all sounds kind of dire, it should:
According to Webster, to distract is to draw or direct one’s attention to a different object, or in different directions, at the same time. We experience distraction every day: lively chatter on the bus breaks our focus from the Stephen King novel; deep in thought, we absently reach for the fridge to put the Corn Flakes box away; or we knock over our beverage in a wayward swipe at it—with eyes fixed to the big play on the flat screen.
Some consequences of distraction are harmless, but the stakes are raised when it comes to driving. Reacting to sudden and unexpected hazards on the road requires acute presence of mind and continuous assessment in rapidly changing conditions. There is no room for multitasking.
There are three general categories of distracted driving:3
Here are ten common examples of distraction in driving, the applicable categories, and some tips to avoid being a casualty of inattention:
The meteoric rise in mobile device usage, and texting as a preferred mode of communication—most notably with the younger set—make this a leading contributor to the increase in distracted driving incidents. All categories of distraction are engaged in this toxic trifecta of preoccupation.
For many, a road trip without java is like a theater flick without popcorn. But there is distractive potential beyond a spill and burn hazard. Eyes leave the road in search of the cup and a hand leaves the wheel as we reach for it, or hold it. Smoking or fast food adds risk as we fumble with packaging with a single hand, and with some burgers and sandwiches, struggle for a condiment-salvaging grip.
A mind consumed in deep thought is a mind unavailable for tasks of high concentration. This is a significant factor in distracted driving accidents, with one American insurance company suggesting it accounts for up to 62% of fatal car crashes.
Like the surgeon’s medical team and the pilot’s flight crew, passengers of an automobile play an important role in enabling the driver to safely operate the craft and land smoothly at the destination.
This is a distraction with degrees of intensity. Moderate background music is not as distractive as processing conversational dialogue. Light conversation is less cerebrally seductive than concentrating on an audio book.
Cognitive diversion is proportional to the intensity or complexity of the stimulus. To the extent a mind is occupied in deep conversation—by phone or with passengers—it is less available to process activity and conditions related to safely operating a vehicle. Preoccupied drivers drift along a route with only vague awareness of their surroundings.
While automobile designers are bringing technologies such as voice-command features to keep our hands on the wheel, and talking navigation systems to keep our eyes on the road, the cure can turn cause when hands reach and eyes wander, unnecessarily.
If you’re part of the daily commute wave, you’ve probably witnessed a frenzied counterpart touching up make-up, fixing hair, pulling an electric razor across a stubbled cheek, or shedding a layer of clothing. Sometimes it’s jammed into the downtime of a stoplight, occasionally it’s in full flight.
Road travel often tempts us with some beautiful views, but drivers rarely have the luxury of partaking. Multi-directional attentiveness in heavy traffic is a continuous process of direct and mirror-assisted monitoring of activity in front, behind and beside the vehicle. A quiet road may seem relatively innocuous, but the prospect of running into vehicle debris, errant cargo, roadkill, nature’s scatterings, or bolting animals, precludes safe scenery gazing.
When it comes to kids or pets, things happen quickly. As tempting as it may be to whirl around and separate combative siblings, or settle a howling pet, it is much safer to wait for a roadside stop opportunity. Particularly trying is an infant fussing in a rear car-seat position.
Anything that dulls or alters the senses is a serious threat to safe and effective concentration on the operation of a vehicle. Jurisdictional laws and penalties reflect the seriousness of the matter and the tips here should be a surprise to no one.
And here’s where the rubber meets the road: with the notable exception of anesthetic and altitude, there is not really much difference between what we expect from our surgeons and pilots, and what we should be practicing as automobile drivers.