Preventing Distracted Driving
The Risks of Distracted Driving

The Risks of Distracted Driving: Understanding The Danger and Impact

Updated Dec. 16, 2020

Failing to focus on the task of driving for even a moment could mean death or catastrophic injury, for you or for somebody else. In the time that you have glanced away from the road, a pedestrian could step out in front of your vehicle or another motorist could cut across your path. Nothing increases driving risk more than a distracted driver and worryingly, millions of them use United States roadways every day.

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. Dividing your attention between driving and another unrelated task will significantly increase your chances of being involved in a traffic accident or collision.

Types of driving distractions

The phenomenon of distracted driving causes such incredible loss of life that it is the subject of extensive study. It is now understood that there are three basic types of driver distraction:

  1. 1

    Visual distractions force you to take your eyes off the road.

  2. 2

    Manual distractions force you to take your hands off the steering wheel.

  3. 3

    Cognitive distractions force you to take your mind off the task of driving.

Becoming distracted in any one of these ways dramatically increases the risk of having an accident. Frighteningly, many common driver distractions check all three of these boxes.

Think about texting while driving. You would be visually distracted by looking at your cell phone, manually distracted by operating the device and cognitively distracted by thinking about the content of the message. It’s no wonder that texting while driving is a leading cause of traffic accidents!

Common driver distractions

Do you think that you will be conscientious enough to avoid distractions while driving? Most new drivers do, yet studies orchestrated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have revealed that motorists typically spend 30 percent of the time they are driving engaging in non-essential activities. Driver distractions that frequently result in collisions include:

The false sense of safety we experience while driving often leads us to forget that we are hurtling along the roadway, at speed, in a metal box. You should not be applying make-up, eating your lunch or taking phone calls while behind the wheel. Driving must be the sole focus of your attention.

The impact of distracted driving

In 2016, 3,450 people were killed in traffic accidents that involved at least one distracted driver. The previous year saw 391,000 people injured in distracted driving crashes. Looking at these figures it is clear that driver distraction poses a significant threat to public safety, though the full scope of the problem is still not known.

We do know that there are many distracted driving incidents are not accounted for in these statistics, as it cannot always be established whether a driver was distracted at the time of an accident. Some experts estimate that driver distraction may be responsible for up to 80 percent of all traffic accidents and collisions around the United States.

To better understand the true impact of distracted driving, the NHTSA conducted a study using a sample of drivers and monitoring devices that tracked their actions behind the wheel. When collisions or near-collisions occurred, distraction was found to be a contributing factor 23 percent of the time. The results of this study allowed researchers to organize driver distractions in order of how frequently they resulted in collisions.

Understanding the relative risk of driver distractions

While engaging in any non-essential activity while driving increases risk, some driver distractions are more likely to result in collisions than others. It is not necessarily the “riskiest” actions that lead to the most collisions. More often, we see that distractions that occur frequently or take up more time pose the biggest threat.

For instance, dialing on a cell phone is inherently riskier than just talking on a cell phone hands-free, as the former is a visual, manual and cognitive distraction while the latter is purely cognitive. Though, as drivers spend considerably more time talking on the phone than they do dialing a number, both distractions were found to be responsible for roughly the same number of collisions.

It is important to take from this that no one distraction can be identified as being more dangerous than any other. Any activity which takes some of your attention away from the act of driving will significantly increase the likelihood of a collision occurring.

Distracted driving in teenagers

Teen drivers experience nearly double the risk of being involved in a distracted driving collision than older, more experienced drivers. As a young and relatively new driver, you are less likely to realize the danger involved in engaging in distracting activities and more likely to travel with distracting passengers.

Not only are teen drivers more likely to become distracted, but they are also more likely to be involved in a collision while being distracted. Becoming distracted is more harmful to teenage drivers, as their lack of experience means that the task of driving demands more attention.

Check out these figures from a 2013 NHTSA report:

  • 14 out of every million licensed drivers were involved in fatal distracted driving crashes.
  • 24 out of every million teenage licensed drivers were involved in fatal distracted driving crashes.
  • Of the 3,154 distracted driving fatalities which occurred in 2013, 8 percent were teenagers between 15 and 19 years-old.
  • 10 percent of all teenagers killed on the road died in distracted driving crashes.
  • 10 percent of all drivers responsible for distracted driving deaths were teenagers.

As a teen driver, you are substantially more likely to kill or be killed as a result of distracted driving. In addition to monitoring your own driving behavior, you must encourage your friends to avoid driving while distracted, as lives may well depend on it.

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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.

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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.

No Texting While Driving
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Texting on A Cell Phone

There is no driver distraction more dangerous than texting, emailing or sending any other written communication with an electronic device. While typing on a cell phone or similar device, you will be visually, manually and cognitively distracted from the task of driving.

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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.

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Distracted Driving

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.