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April is distracted driving awareness month

Texting while driving kills
Texting while driving kills
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

The National Safety Council (NSC) has designated the month of April as “Distracted Driver Awareness Month.” The NSC is a nongovernmental, nonprofit public service organization established in 1947. The NSC is dedicated to protecting life and promoting health in the United States.

According to the NSC a minimum of 26% of automobile crashes involve drivers either talking or texting on their cell phones. This behavior is called distracted driving. Distracted driving has the dubious distinction of now joining excessive speed and impaired driving as the leading factors in serious injury and fatal crashes. NSC data indicates that there are more crashes with people talking on cell phones than texting although texting is clearly a major distraction as well.

Since 1994 the NSC reported that approximately 737,000 people lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. To reduce lives lost in crashes necessitates a focus on prevention. This article will discuss cognitive distraction and the myth of multitasking as both relate to hand-held and hands-free communication devices.

Cognitive distraction is the practice of taking your focus and thus your thinking off the road. Cognitive distraction applies to both hand-held and hands-free devices. Both devices distract your thinking from driving safely. The NSC conducted a meta-analysis of at least 30 empirical studies from around the globe comparing the performance of drivers with hand-held and hands-free devices. Their primary finding was that using a hands-free device did not offer any safety benefits over hand-held devices while driving. The use of a hand-held device also added the obvious additional risk of removing one hand from the steering wheel. It was abundantly clear that the hands-free device did not eliminate cognitive distraction.

Multitasking is a popular term used by people who believe that they can do two or more tasks simultaneously. Employers like to believe that employees can multitask and accomplish more on the job. The truth is that our minds switch rapidly between multiple tasks giving people the misunderstanding that they are doing them simultaneously. In psychology and neurology this is called “attention switching.” The concern with so-called multitasking as we drive is that if a driver is engaged in a conversation using either a hands-free or hand-held device they must switch attention from the road to the conversation and vice-versa. This switch may only take a blink of the eye (about one-tenth of a second) but at 60-miles an hour or in congested driving conditions or if something unexpected occurs on the road the outcome could be fatal.

The bottom line is if you are texting or talking on a cell phone using any device you are driving distracted. The time it takes to switch from conversation to action could be fatal. The empirical evidence is clear. Please do not drive distracted. You may save a life.

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