Financial Resource Center


Dodge Distractions While Driving

by Jerry Edgerton / October 12th, 2010

Let's say you're running late in your commute and decide to call the office on your cell phone. Or you lean over to pick up that annoying piece of paper caught between the car seats. Or you reach into the back seat to stop a fight between your kids. In all of these cases, the next thing you hear could be a terrifying crash. Distracted or inattentive drivers cause nearly 70% of rear-end crashes on the highway and about 25% of all accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Washington, D.C. Though it can take almost superhuman effort in today's round of commuting, shopping, and shuttling the kids, avoiding such distractions can save your life. Chances are, you're smart enough to avoid the latest and worst distraction: texting while driving. But technology is far from the only culprit. "Distracted driving has been a problem since Henry Ford. It's just that we keep inventing new ways to be distracted," says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a research organization in Arlington, Va., funded by the insurance industry. Safety researchers include distractions—such as using technology, talking to passengers, or eating—in a broad category of "inattention" that also includes daydreaming or thinking about something other than your driving. Some of these distractions are hard to measure in terms of their effect on accidents. But the IIHS reports that studies matching accidents to cell phone records show that you are four times as likely to have a crash causing injury or property damage while talking on a cell phone. According to the IIHS, studies do not show a lower accident rate from using hands-free phones than hand-held, because it's the cell phone conversation—not the device itself—that is a distraction from driving.
Distracted or inattentive drivers cause nearly 70% of rear-end crashes on the highway and about 25% of all accidents.
Here are some ways to avoid being a distracted driver—many of them easier said than done.
  • Stay off your cell phone while in motion. If you need to make a call, find a place to pull over and stop. Follow the same advice if you need to adjust your GPS settings, read a map, take off your coat, or put on makeup.
  • Know the laws in your state. If you can't always pull over to use the phone, at least make sure you know if yours is one of the states that bans the use of hand-held phones while driving. Don't add the prospect of getting a ticket to highway danger. If hand-held phones are illegal, get a hands-free setup, then use it as little as possible.
  • If your car has less-distracting controls, use them. Buttons in the steering wheel that adjust radio tuning and volume can keep you from taking your eyes off the road—once you get used to them. Ford and Lincoln vehicles come with the SYNC system that lets you play music selections from your iPod or make Bluetooth-connected phone calls with voice commands. Cars from Hyundai and Kia will offer a similar technology starting with 2011 models. While no research has yet been done to show actual accident reduction, one study does show some promise. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, in research sponsored by Ford, had drivers already familiar with SYNC give phone and music commands with SYNC and then do the same thing manually. The study found that drivers took their eyes off the road longer and steered more erratically when using their hands for the tasks.
    You are four times as likely to have a crash causing injury or property damage while talking on a cell phone.
  • Talk to passengers as little as possible. This is a tough one whether it's kids, a friend, or your spouse in the car. But just as with a cell phone, a live conversation takes your focus off the road. Most of all, try to avoid arguments—which are really distracting—or at least postpone them until you can stop.
  • Don't drive with pets unless they are restrained. A survey by auto club AAA finds that 60% of dog owners have been distracted by their pets in the car while driving. And the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals adds that pets should be restrained in a car for their protection in case of a crash.
  • Talk about driving distractions with teenagers. If you have teenagers about to get their licenses, go over with them the dangers of texting and calling while driving. Of course, teens rarely want to listen to their parents, but it's worth making the effort. In an IIHS survey, 37% of drivers ages 18 to 24 said they text while driving at least a few times a month. Find out if yours is one of the states that bans all texting while driving and, if so, point out to your teen that the practice is not only dangerous but illegal.
    If you need to make a call, find a place to pull over and stop.
    If you're extremely worried about your teen calling and texting while driving, new software can block outgoing calls and texts with some smartphones like Android and Blackberry. For $2.99 per month or $25 a year, ZoomSafer software prevents calls and texting when the vehicle is moving but sends automatic responses to incoming calls and messages saying the recipient is driving and will respond later. It uses the phone's GPS function to tell if the vehicle is moving. For that matter, if you are having trouble breaking your cell phone habit, use ZoomSafer or another system yourself.
New safety technology does offer some hope of reducing accidents from distractions. Forward collision warning systems sense with radar or lasers when a car is getting too close to another object—usually the car ahead—and sound a warning signal and, in some cases, apply the brakes if sensors say a crash is imminent. Another new technology sounds a signal if sensors detect you are drifting out of your lane. For now, these systems are available mostly in luxury brands such as Acura, Audi, Lincoln, and Mercedes-Benz, though they likely will spread to less-expensive vehicles in years to come. For now, your best protection is to avoid all the distractions you can and stay focused on your driving. Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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