Sixteen percent of all traffic fatalities in 2009 were in some way distraction-related. The number of fatalities involving blood alcohol content above the legal limit has dropped; however, the number of traffic fatalities has remained steady. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) feels that this is, at least in part, because distracted driving is on the rise. It has become such an important issue that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Secretary Ray LaHood has declared war on distracted driving. A large part of the focus will be on weaning drivers off whatever it is that is distracting them.

To understand what distracted driving is, what the most common disruptions are and how widespread this phenomenon is, let’s look at some frequently asked questions on the topic.

What is distracted driving?
It’s defined as any nondriving activity that has the potential to distract a driver from the task of driving.

What is considered a distraction?
Drivers encounter three main types of distractions:
1. Visual—these are distractions that cause the driver to take his or her eyes off the road.
2. Manual—these distractions include anything that causes the driver to take his or her hands off the wheel.
3. Cognitive—in these cases, the driver’s mind is taken off what he or she is supposed to be doing: concentrating on the operation of the automobile.

One of the most common and dangerous distractions is cell phone text messaging. Texting is perilous because it involves all three types of distractions. Other distractions include operating or talking on a cell phone, eating and/or drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading, using a map or GPS, changing the radio station, and operating a CD or MP3 player.

Why does distracted driving happen?
Distractions take many forms and are caused by different stimuli. For instance, drivers may be distracted by busy lifestyles, stressful jobs or the presence of children in the car. In addition, people have become dependent on technology, such as cell phones, smart phones and MP3 players. Many times people forget or choose not to put these items away when they should be giving the act of driving their undivided attention.

How big is the problem?
It is one of the biggest dangers on U.S. roads today. According to the NHTSA, an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 crashes occur daily as a result of distracted driving.

Who are the offenders?
Everyone who drives has done so distracted at some point or another. Younger drivers are typically at greater risk, probably because they are more apt to use the devices that distract them, but they are definitely not alone.

Is talking on a cell phone more dangerous than conversing with a passenger?
The research so far has been conflicted. Some findings show both activities to be equally risky, while others show cell phone use to be more dangerous. The major difference is that a passenger experiences the same driving situation at the same time as the driver. This means the passenger can alert the driver to potential hazards, thus decreasing the potential distraction they may pose.

Is it safe to use a hands-free cell phone while driving?
Recent research indicates that there is no difference between hands-free or hand-held cell phone use; each causes the same degree of cognitive distraction. Either way, this distraction is significant enough to negatively affect a person’s driving ability, increasing his or her risk of an accident.

What is being done about distracted driving?
Distracted driving is a motor vehicle issue, so it is being dealt with at the state level. Because the causes of distraction are so diverse, many states have decided to enact laws to address those distractions that pose the biggest dangers.

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws that ban texting while driving. Of these areas, 26 states plus D.C. view driver texting as a primary offense, which is one for which an officer may cite a driver without any other offense taking place.

Many states prohibit all cell phone use by novice drivers. Eight states and D.C. prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving.

Since laws vary across the nation, it is best to check with your state for specific regulations; a good resource for this information is www.ghsa.org.

We have all had a cup of coffee on the road, had to yell at the kids for messing around in the back seat, driven home after a heated discussion with a coworker or boss, or taken that phone call we’ve been waiting for all day. The important thing is to realize just how dangerous this behavior is and make a concerted effort to minimize how often it happens. If everyone does this, the roads will be much safer.


KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.