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.
Here are some ways to avoid being a distracted driver—many of them easier said than done.
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.
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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