Most drivers will admit that they get distracted whilst driving. So what distracts us most? Is it the array of hi-tech gadgets that are in most of our cars today, or is it the same things that distracted drivers 50 years ago?
Every one of us allows them selves to be distracted from the already demanding task in hand and can any of us honestly say we have never been distracted at some point.
Road Safety experts say that distractions can be physical, mental, or a combination of both and have pretty much set their sites on banning us using from doing anything other than “Keeping our minds on our drivin’ and our hands on the wheel and keeping our snoopy eyes on the road ahead” (paraphrasing a 50’s one hit wonder) so lets look at the distractions and finally, at what effect the experts say they have on our driving and as a result, what’s likely to be banned in future.
I guess initially, it’s about how we are able to multi-task and don’t forget, when we drive, that’s exactly what we are doing, multi-tasking, we are in control of a heavy piece of machinery, often travelling at high speeds and you would think that this would be job enough in itself.
However whilst controlling the vehicle, all of us have to choose our route, make sure we are going the correct speed for the road and the weather conditions in which we are travelling. We have to react to all of the other vehicles around us, some of which just might do something unpredictable and we have to make sure we don’t hit them when they do. We have to keep an eye out for traffic warning signs to make sure we are aware of the bend that’s coming up, or the traffic lights that are ahead and of course look out for things such as temporary speed limits and importantly other road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, some of which might be difficult to see.
Normal every day things might distract us and that could be just looking at another car in traffic, reading a road sign, marvelling at a rainbow, or perhaps the beautiful scenery outside our window, or even taking a quick look at the bad road accident that you’re passing and heaven forbid, looking at that pretty girl, or handsome guy at the bus stop. All simple things, but all distractions.
Chatting with your passenger, or maybe getting too involved in the debate taking place on the radio are considered to be mental distractions taking your mind off the job of driving as you can become more absorbed with the discussion than what you are supposed to be doing. In certain circumstances, you maybe don’t even need someone else in the car, if you are upset with perhaps something that’s gone wrong at home, or perhaps your boss is giving you hard times, you are distracted, because your mind is somewhere else.
Perhaps you’ve been ill recently, or perhaps you still are. Something as simple as a sudden sneeze, or a bad cough, is going to distract you as is grabbing for a tissue to sort out a runny nose, but these are all things we consider as normal, but when you consider that most of us are not at our most alert when we are ill and its easy to imagine how something as commonplace as this can distract us as well.
What about reaching for something that we really can’t reach, such as the item we want off your back seat, or the CD we are trying to get out of your glove box, well not only are things like this distracting, we have to take at least one hand off the wheel and our eyes off the road to achieve them.
Have you ever eaten or drunk anything whilst driving? That can of coke on a hot day, or one of your auntie’s cheese and pickle sandwiches on that long journey, or maybe that breakfast snack or coffee because we are running late. Hot drinks can spill and burn you and food can drop all over you, or maybe leave you with greasy or sticky hands that could slip on the steering wheel. Yes, another apparently harmless everyday distraction.
Let’s stick with things that many of us probably consider normal. Smoking in cars is another area where you could be distracted. You have to get the cigarette from the pack, and then light it, all meaning you have to take at least one hand off the wheel and what about the hot end falling off onto your lap, or perhaps ash being blown into your eyes? However, smokers say, that they feel more alert after having a cigarette and indeed, research supports this, although it does say that the effect is only short term, but never the less, smokers will tell you that it helps them concentrate and even stay awake when tired.
Child seats are another obvious major area of distraction (it has to be) as parents keep one eye on the road and the other on managing their precious little bundle and indeed, some cars even have secondary, additional rear view mirrors to allow you to keep an eye on the kids in the back whilst driving, however, those child seats that face backwards and are located in the front passenger seat are even worse, as parents constantly seem to be looking down at their progeny and attending to every dribble, which must be hugely distracting and looking at our old friend “research”, its reported that kid’s are 4 times more distracting than adult passengers and infants are 8 times more distracting (but for some reason that’s acceptable).
Dogs loose in cars has also got to be an unpredictable distraction as they jump around the car and should the driver need to brake in an emergency, chances are they are going to be catapulted towards the front of the car, with goodness knows what implications.
OK, let’s take a look at technology and how that distracts us. The advent of car radio’s way back in the 1930’s introduced the first social technology into our cars, but since then, the amount of distractions its possible to buy and use in our cars has grown immensely. It used to be that we just turned our radio on or off, but then someone invented the in car cassette player, then the in-car CD player which allowed us to put our music into it, and who hasn’t rummaged in the glove box through a bunch of tapes or CD’s to find the one you want whilst driving, then take it out of its case, make sure it’s the right way up and slot it into the player. You have to admit, it’s distracting, as you take your hands off the controls and stop paying attention to your driving, placing your car firmly into an “auto-pilot” (which your car doesn’t have)
Today, in many case’s the audio might come from an MP3 player either plugged into your cars audio system, or transmitted to it by Bluetooth and its often the case that selecting tracks can only be done from the handset, which involves picking it up, looking at it and pressing some buttons and that’s got to be far more dangerous than say pushing a button on the front of your radio, however in some cases, drivers even wear earphones, so they get the full MP3 experience, meaning they are totally distracted as they can’t hear anything else (certainly not what’s going on around them).
The emergence of the microprocessor in the 70s & 80’s saw the computer come to the car and probably the most obvious example of that is Satellite Navigation which can tell us exactly where we are at any time. Still a fairly new innovation, but fitted in cars since the mid 90’s, but now available across the counter for less than £100 Designed to save us time, we could simply listen to the spoken route instructions, concentrate on our driving and arrive exactly where we wanted to be, without the distraction of looking for road signs, and struggling to read them as we passed by.
Whilst the benefits of knowing your route are tremendous, for the main part, these systems have just given us another toy to play with and in many ways, they have become a must have status symbol, why else would drivers when setting off to work each morning on the journey they’ve done a thousand times, stick these things to their windscreens as they do. The problem with them is that they usually aren’t easy to programme, yet the systems allow you to do that, even when you are driving. The maps are usually too small and you find yourself spending just too long staring at the little screen. OK, these things replace maps, so I suppose there is a trade off, as they are probably safer than trying to read a map whilst you are driving, but the downside is that the Sat Nav, is pretty much always on, where the map, would have been resting at its home in your glove box. Certain companies have already outlawed the use of satellite navigation by employees during working hours.
The most obvious hot topic in terms of distraction today is the mobile phone. Initially it was legal to hold your phone to your ear and make a call while you were driving, but that was outlawed in the UK in February 2007, and getting caught after that date was going to get you a fine and points on your licence (although never a day passes that I don’t see a number of people still using a phone in that way). Strangely, in the USA, it still is legal to hold a phone in your hand whilst you make a call in the majority of states and where there are restrictions, they seem mostly to apply to young drivers, or school bus drivers and the like, however by the end of 2009, 17 states had made it illegal to send a text whilst driving.
With the use of hand held phone being made illegal within the UK, the market for hands free devices grew dramatically and we’ve all seen drivers looking like Uhura out of Startrek with a strange device stuck in their ear and oddly, we’ve also probably all seen the same people not in their cars, wandering around a supermarket, still with the device firmly stuck in their lugs, I suppose wanting to let the rest of us know firstly, that they have a mobile phone and secondly, that they are that important, that they might need to take a call at any moment and it would be awful if it came in whilst they had their hands full of frozen chips.
Technology moves on, it was obvious that these ear piece things were not a permanent fix to the “hands-free” issue (if simply because you look stupid wearing one), so car manufacturers began building Bluetooth connection into their car radios, allowing you to both make and receive a call, even when your phone was in your pocket, or tucked away in the glove box. These devices differ in their abilities, but all allow you to dial a number from your radio and make a call, but many are even voice activated, meaning just by pushing one button, you can read the number out to the lady that lives in your dashboard and she will dial it for you. Some systems even transfer all of the data from your mobile phone, allowing you to see your phones address book, missed calls, received calls and last dialled numbers all on the screen on your radio. Clever that.
For those of us that don’t have a car new enough to have built in hands free, (and don’t want to look like a Startrek character), we can now buy devices such as the “Parrot” which will give a similar performance to the inbuilt systems, or even buy Satellite Navigation systems that incorporate a hands free phone device and most of them do the job pretty well.
We said we would look at what’s likely to be banned and frankly, it’s all of these hands free devices which are the target for road safety experts, who are all trying to come up with as much research as they can find to justify banning them.
Research varies from saying a driver making a hands free call is as dangerous a someone with over the UK 80mg drink-drive limit, in other words, as dangerous as a drunk driver and other reports that say making a call, even hands free, impairs our ability to react as quickly as we would, had we not been making that call. Other research sees no appreciable difference in reaction times.
Finally, let’s take a look at a sensitive topic. Let’s ask if fixed speed cameras and safety camera vans distract us. Well initially, I think the answer is yes, as whom amongst us does not look down and check their speed as they see one coming up. We shouldn’t speed, but many of us do. In the UK, from 1997 to 2007, there were around 15 million speeding tickets issued and estimates suggest that well over 40% of British drivers have 3 or more points on their licences, so drivers are always on the look out for cameras and van’s particularly when they are speeding, and that’s a distraction and it’s a distraction at the very time you shouldn’t be distracted (when you are driving fast).
Having looked at everything everyone has said about this topic, it’s clear that they want us all to live in an ideal world and we all know that’s just not possible. Has anyone done research to compare a mother looking at her child in the kiddie seat, compared to someone changing a CD, or maybe the distraction caused by a dog loose inside the car, or even looking at the pretty girl at the bus stop, well you can be sure the answer is no.
Technology is the easy win for those that frankly don’t want us to do anything other than sit there, looking ahead but for me that’s the really dangerous thing, because it’s often the boredom of driving that’s the killer, it’s the boredom that lets you drift away and not even remember your journey into work that morning. Drivers need to be stimulated and that’s why so many accidents happen on motorways, because drivers get bored. Sitting on the couch at home, in front of the TV, you’ve got more chance of dropping off, if the program you are watching isn’t interesting, but that doesn’t happen when it’s a program you enjoy, or want to see and whilst I am not saying you are going to fall asleep at the wheel because you are bored, there surely has to be a point between being awake and being asleep that is a kind of no mans land where your attention isn’t at the level it should be. So for me, I think banning the in-car innovations that entertain us, stimulate us and keep us active and involved, would be a real mistake, as they do have an upside and that’s preventing us from being distracted by the most dangerous influence we can come across and that’s Mr Boredom.
Whilst research is always interesting, and not all of it is bad or inaccurate, some of it clearly is and the way its done and the brief the researchers have doesn’t always mean its valuable as its often commissioned by someone that wants a certain outcome and it will be conducted to arrive at that and don’t forget, its what these researchers do, they research, its their job, its how they earn their money and I guess because of that, they are always looking for the next contentious issue to keep them in a job.
Things are not that bad on the roads of the UK, they are still a pretty safe place to be. Yes there will always be accidents because with so many millions of vehicles doing millions of miles, its inevitable, its going to happen, but trying to reduce accident numbers with anecdotal evidence really does not cut it, particularly as we all know it’s ultimately “the nut behind the wheel” that’s the problem and because we tend to make our baseline as the lowest common denominator in the UK, does this mean that none of us should ever be allowed to drive again?