What is the problem?
Too many drivers are operating their vehicles while distracted, leading
to deadly crashes. Driver distraction occurs when drivers divert
their attention away from the driving task and fail to do the basics,
like continuously monitoring the road and controlling their vehicle to
address unexpected events. Personal electronic devices (PEDs), such
as cell phones, are one of the greatest contributors to driver distraction.
In 2016, more than 3,100 fatal crashes involving distraction occurred
on US roadways (9% of all fatal crashes that year). These crashes
involved 3,210 distracted drivers, according to the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), because some of them
involved more than one distracted driver.
Contributing to the problem is the widespread belief by many
drivers that they can multitask and still operate a vehicle safely. But
multitasking is a myth; humans can only focus cognitive attention on
one task at a time. That’s why executing any task other than driving is
dangerous and risks a crash.
Although drivers contend with many other distractions, such as other
passengers and infotainment systems,
PEDs are particularly concerning
because drivers spend more time on
these devices than on other distracting
activities. We continue to investigate
crashes in all modes that involve the
inappropriate use of PEDs.
But manual distraction—texting—is not
the only concern; “cognitive” distractions
can occur when using hands-free
devices because, although you’re not
physically holding something or pushing
a button, you are still focusing your mind
elsewhere, such as on your conversation,
rather than on the road ahead. We have
seen several crashes involving handsfree
devices and this form of cognitive
What can be done?
To reduce crashes, injuries, and deaths, drivers must keep their minds,
hands, and eyes focused only on driving. Focusing on or thinking
about anything other than the task at hand impairs performance and
can lead to tragic consequences. Distraction can best be addressed
through a combination of education, legislation, and enforcement.
To address the problem of distraction, the
following actions should be taken:
- Ban all PED use on our roadways. The District of Columbia and 37
states restrict the use of cell phones by novice drivers, and 47 states,
DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands ban text messaging
for all drivers.
- Strictly enforce laws; consider roadway monitoring to detain
- Educate the public. Public education continues to be important
for teaching drivers, operators, and safety-critical personnel about
the dangers of distractions. Legislation and enforcement can help
bring about this change.
- When designing and incorporating infotainment systems, consider
the level of distraction they will create for drivers and restrict access
when the vehicle is in motion.
- Recognize that safe driving requires 100% of a driver’s attention
100% of the time. Distraction is not only about holding a device in
your hand or glancing away from the road; it also involves mentally
straying from the driving task. You can’t multitask!
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