Preventing Distracted Driving
Dealing with Driving Distractions

Distracted Driving: Reducing The Impact of Distractions

Updated Dec. 16, 2020

In this module, we explore the extreme public safety issue that is distracted driving and discuss effective strategies that can be used to combat risk. While some distractions can be avoided, there is no way to remove all possible distractions from any driving environment. Therefore, we must know how to handle them safely when they occur.

Reducing the impact of distractions

Despite distracted driving being a serious, complex and well-studied issue, the solution to the danger it poses is remarkably straight-forward. Motorists must focus on the road and remain attentive to the driving task the entire time they are behind the wheel and the engine is on. Achieving this is simply a matter of consciously choosing to do it. Be aware of your own mental state and actively draw your attention back to the road if a distraction leads you astray.

You must make a commitment to avoid distracting activities while driving and if extenuating circumstances mean that this cannot be done, you must pull over to deal with the problem. Do not attempt to engage in non-driving related tasks while behind the wheel, no matter how harmless or urgent they may seem. If your cell phone rings, you’re hungry, a child is yelling in the back seat, you drop something or you need to refer to a map, pull over – none of these issues are worth taking a human life to resolve.

A great many distractions can be avoided simply by preparing yourself properly before driving. Make sure you have eaten, are fully clothed, groomed and ready to take on the day before hopping into the driver’s seat. Any calls which come through while you’re on the road can wait until you reach your destination. In an emergency where you MUST take a call, allow it to go to voicemail and return the call as soon as you can find a safe place to park.

Completely unavoidable distractions such as glare from bright sunlight, collisions elsewhere on the roadway and insects in your car will sometimes occur. Fortunately, keeping a calm, clear and logical outlook in these situations can help you deal with unavoidable distractions and keep your attention directed toward the road.

Understanding the risks

Let’s begin our exploration with a discussion on why, exactly, distracted driving is so dangerous. In this module, you will learn to identify driver distractions based on whether they are visual, manual, cognitive or some combination of the three. Distractions that check all three of these boxes – like texting or emailing – are the most likely to lead to an accident or collision. Following this, we will look at common driver distractions, such as personal grooming, cell phone use and eating, and the prevalence of these issues among drivers in the United States. In the battle against distracted driving, we must first understand the magnitude and impact of the problem.

Why is distraction a problem?

Our second module explores the cognitive basis of distracted driving, so we can better understand why it’s such a dangerous issue. Most people assume that managing unrelated tasks while driving is not a problem, as human beings are adept multitaskers. This is false. When we believe we are working on two or more tasks at the same time, we are actually switching rapidly between tasks, working on each individually. This means that a motorist who texts, eats or combs their hair while driving will experience brief periods when they are not focusing on the road or on the task of driving at all.

Furthermore, while switching between multiple tasks, a person’s ability to complete any of them to a high standard becomes hindered. This may lead to a delayed response time and sensory overload, to the degree that you miss vital visual cues on the roadway around you or cannot safely control the vehicle.

Common driver distractions

The bulk of the modules in this section deal with the most common driver distractions individually, starting with the biggest offenders: texting or talking on a cell phone. With this information, you can begin to understand the risks posed by different types of driver distraction and how best to avoid them behind the wheel. If you’d like to know the laws in your state concerning cell phone use and other driver distractions, these modules can provide an overview and point you in the right direction.

Talking on the cell phone

Engaging in cell phone conversations while driving may cause loss of focus, peripheral vision limitations, emotional disturbances and will keep you in a distracted state for some time after you have ended the call. There is no 100 percent safe way to talk on the cell phone while driving. Even hands-free sets – which minimize manual distraction – are known to reduce attentiveness and cause collisions.

Many states have now introduced bans or partial bans on talking on the cell phone while driving; in most cases, this refers to hand-held use only. You must realize that following the law to the letter does not necessarily mean you are doing everything in your power to avoid distractions behind the wheel. An action like talking on your cell may not be strictly forbidden but this does not mean it is safe.

Texting on the cell phone

One of the most dangerous driver distractions by far, text messaging or emailing while driving checks every risk-enhancing box. Reading or typing written correspondence will distract you from driving cognitively, manually and visually. It must be avoided under all circumstances and is now strictly prohibited in many parts of the United States. Texting while driving is thought to be more dangerous than drink-driving and has overtaken this latter violation as the leading cause of death among teenagers. For this reason, teen drivers are banned from texting while driving in most states.

Get caught breaking an anti-texting law and you will be looking at a hefty fine, that is, if you are fortunate enough to avoid a serious collision. Check out state-specific restrictions, fines and penalties associated with texting while driving in your driver's handbook.

Multimedia devices and reading

Any electronic device has the potential to distract you from the task of driving and monitoring the roadway, even those that are built into your car! We all know that using a cell phone, tablet, laptop or another similar device while driving would be a bad idea, but few drivers realize what a risk their built-in electronics pose. Temperature controls, GPS systems, dashboard display options, seat adjustment levers and similar features are not designed to be used while the vehicle is in motion – at least, not by the driver!

Always make sure to set your driving environment up the way you like it before setting off on your journey. If adjustments must be made that could take your attention away from the road, find a safe place to pull over first.

Map reading, reading magazines and listening to the radio also has the potential to be extremely dangerous driver distractions. You cannot physically or mentally dedicate your full attention to driving if you are also trying to find your location on a map or catch up on the latest news. Listening to music is a slightly more complex issue, as there are safe and not-so-safe ways to go about it.

Listening to music

When it comes to distracted driving and public safety, listening to music while driving is a controversial subject. Extensive studies have been conducted in a bid to establish whether listening to music improves or impairs a person’s driving ability. While there has been no single conclusive answer, we have learned a great deal about the risks and benefits of listening to music, which we share with you in this article.

As a novice driver, the main thing you should take away from this discussion is that you are more susceptible to distraction and would be better off not listening to music while behind the wheel. If you do listen to music while driving, do not have the volume up too high and avoid becoming distracted by changing radio stations or switching tracks while the car is moving.

Eating or drinking

Consuming food and beverages while driving feels normal for many United States drivers, as we have come to treat our cars somewhat like second homes. Our high-pressure schedules leave us with very little time to sit down and eat at proper meal times, so we resort to drive-through options and easy snacks that can be consumed on-the-go. Though, we must remember that driving is not “spare time” in which other tasks like eating can be completed.

Eating or drinking while driving is dangerous! You may choke or spill hot food on yourself and even if you avoid these extreme outcomes, you are likely to miss important visual information on the roadway while your eyes and focus are averted. Your ability to control the vehicle will also be impaired if you balance food on your lap, hold utensils or allow your hands to become greasy. Even sipping from a soda can increases risk.

Personal grooming

Like eating, personal grooming behind the wheel MUST be avoided. The most common personal grooming activities which motorists engage in while driving are applying make-up, combing hair, brushing teeth, putting in contact lenses and adjusting accessories such as jewelry and neckties. Each of these activities presents a unique set of risks; most involve taking your eyes off the road and at least one hand off the steering wheel at the same time.

Grooming is possibly one of the most pointless driver distractions, as it often does not go to plan. In addition to endangering yourself, you could end up losing time as you may need to fix any mistakes made with your hair or make-up while the vehicle was in motion when you reach your destination.

Other distracting activities

Other common and largely avoidable driver distractions include smoking, daydreaming and the movement of loose objects inside the vehicle. A little self-discipline and pre-planning can help you to avoid these traps. Smoking while driving (or at any time) is not a good idea. If you feel you would be tempted to smoke, put your cigarettes well out of arm’s reach on the back seat or in the trunk. The same should be done with any loose objects which may move around the vehicle and cause a distraction while the car is in motion.

Distracting passengers

Even amicable, well-behaved passengers have the potential to be incredibly distracting to a driver. As the person in control of the vehicle, you have the right and responsibility to ask your passengers to quiet down or stop doing anything which is preventing you from concentrating on the driving task. You may feel a little awkward doing this sometimes but remember that your job is to keep your passengers safe, not to keep them happy.

Learn about the distractions you may face when transporting friends, family, co-workers, children or pets in this penultimate article on common distractions. If you feel you cannot safely drive because of a distraction caused by teenage or adult passengers, do not hesitate to pull the vehicle over at the next opportunity. If they cannot or will not alter their behavior, they will need to look for alternative means of transport.

Children are a slightly different issue, as they may not understand danger or be able to calm themselves down if they become upset or frustrated while you’re driving. If you need to transport kids, make sure there are plenty of toys and activities in the car to keep them entertained. Never discipline a child while driving. If you must scold or reason with them, pull over before doing so.

Distractions on the road

Distractions you may face inside the car are just the tip of the iceberg. While driving, you will also have to contend with a myriad of distracting situations ahead of you, around your vehicle and by the roadside. Outside distractions such as car accidents, scenery, pedestrians, animals, advertisements and landmarks can largely be avoided by following proper visual search strategies while driving.

If you encounter something which draws your eye but does not pose a hazard, immediately return your attention to the roadway. When the distracting situation is something that could be dangerous – such as debris on the roadway or a pedestrian waiting to cross – you should divert only as much attention to the situation as is necessary to remain safe. Never stare at one section of the roadway for too long. This issue is explored fully in the complete article.

Dealing with distracted drivers

The section finishes with a crucial but often overlooked topic: dealing with distracted drivers. No driver manages to avoid all distractions, all the time. In fact, most motorists are regularly distracted to some degree on every journey they make. You cannot influence another driver’s actions, but you can learn to identify distracted road users and take steps yourself to minimize the risk they present. When you encounter a distracted driver, reduce your speed and give them as much space as roadway conditions allow.

It may seem unfair that you must compensate for the irresponsible actions of other drivers and road users, but keep in mind that there will be occasions when you yourself are distracted and others must manage that risk. A safe Highway Transportation System for all road users can only be achieved through teamwork.

Managing the risk

Federal and state governments are doing a great deal to tackle the loss of life caused by distracted driving, though ultimately, the choices made by individual motorists on a day-to-day basis are what really matters. You can choose to avoid distractions, just as you can choose to behave appropriately in the presence of distracted drivers. The consequences of making the wrong choices can be severe, costly and often deadly. Let’s find out more about the risks and impact of distracted driving, with our first article.

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Read next

The Risks of Distracted Driving
Preventing Distracted Driving 2 of 13

The Risks of Distracted Driving

Any activity you engage in which does not immediately relate to the driving task is considered a distraction. This includes travel-related activities such as map reading or operating a navigation device. Irrespective of how important you may consider an activity to be, controlling your vehicle and monitoring the roadway demands your full attention and must take precedence.

The Cognitive Basis of Distracted Driving
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The Cognitive Basis of Distracted Driving

While we may often feel as if we are performing two or more tasks at the same time, we’re not, as the human brain is physically incapable of it. This means that you are only ever working on one task at a time. While driving and engaging in a distracting activity such as eating or combing your hair, your mind will not be focused on driving at all, for at least some of the time.

Distracted Activity - Talking on The Cell Phone
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Talking on The Cell Phone

Using a cell phone is one of the most risk-enhancing mistakes you can make while operating a moving vehicle. Many motorists assume that this only applies to hand-held cell phone use, though hands-free phone activity can be equally as dangerous.

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Proprioception and Kinesthesia

While most of the information we receive while driving is visual, our other senses are important too. In addition to sight, our brains collect information about the world around us via hearing, smell, taste and touch.

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Visual Targeting

Visual targeting is the practice of focusing your attention on a stationary object which is 12 to 20 seconds ahead of your vehicle. As you move closer to your visual target, you should then select a new fixed object within that 12 to 20-second window, repeating this process continually as you move along the roadway.

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Visual Search Patterns

Knowing where to look and how long for can be confusing for new drivers, particularly when there is so much to keep track of inside your car, right in front of the vehicle and 20 seconds ahead of you on the roadway. To drive safely, you need to adopt a systematic and efficient method of visually scanning your environment.

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Safe Following Distance

It is impossible to drive safely and attentively without leaving enough space between your vehicle and the car ahead of you. Maintaining an adequate following distance is crucial to maximize your view of the roadway up ahead.

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The Effects of Speed

Keeping speed to a minimum is one of the best risk-reducing tactics you can employ as an attentive driver. As the speed you are traveling at increases, so too does the danger you are exposed to and the challenges you face.

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Interacting With Other Drivers

Without effective communication between motorists, it would be impossible to predict the movement of other vehicles and negotiate the roadway safely. Attentive, conscientious motorists think about how their actions will affect other drivers and endeavor to behave considerately, at all times. It is not simply a matter of being polite, it is a matter of safety.