Bob Engel | Counter Steering: Addicted to distractions


I can tell the instant the driver in front of me stops driving and starts doing something else. In the common parlance, he or she has become "distracted." The first cue is that the car starts to slow down; then it moves about in the lane. On the interstate, this movement often involves crossing the "rumble strip" at the edge of the road. Usually the driver then overcompensates by swerving back into the roadway, occasionally into the passing lane.

One of my more interesting examples of distracted driving occurred as I was driving to work. It's a rural road, but the traffic still spikes to several cars at the usual "rush" hours. In this case, a car was approaching without a driver. I moved over, ready to ditch my car, but then a head appeared and his frantic swerve prevented the crash. Apparently, the driver was looking for something on the passenger floor. I watched in the rear view mirror as he stopped, got out, and decompressed. Maybe he learned something?

Today (Feb. 28), the New York Times presented the results of a lengthy study indicating which of the common distractions results in the most crashes. The study was large, 3500 drivers, and had cameras, GPS units, and accelerometers in the cars with the drivers. When a crash occurred, the researchers knew what happened the instant of the crash, and, most importantly, where the driver's eyes were directed. As someone who is out in the middle of this, the results were pretty horrifying.

First off, drivers were distracted, doing something in the car, on more than half of their trips. Further, more than 70 percent of the 900-plus crashes that were logged and studied were precipitated by some kind of distraction. Feeling safe out there?

OK, now for some specifics: the riskiest distraction — the one that increased the chances of crashing by 12 times — was dialing a number on the phone. Next worse was reading or writing, which increased the risk of a crash by 10 times. Apparently novelists and poets are weeded out of the driving ranks mercilessly. Third, was reaching for something other than the phone. That's my guy on South Road who almost took us out. This kind of reaching resulted in an overall increase in crash rate of nine times above background. Interestingly, texting, the presumed six-hundred pound gorilla in the room, increased crash rates "just" five times. That strikes me as low? I don't have access to the primary data, but a small sample size in one category might underestimate the real risk of the distraction.

As you might guess, the crash overlords were alcohol and other drugs. The multiplier was 36. That's right, use of these substances increased the risk of a crash by 36 times. There oughta be a law!

So why would people willingly (knowingly?) put themselves, and others, at higher risk of injury or death, when they're involved in the most dangerous thing they do on a routine basis? Part of the answer is that even dangerous things, when they become mundane and ordinary, don't seem dangerous. Then, when you dial a number on your phone, on the move, and nothing happens, you might do it again, and again, and again, and ... nothing.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro, in the mud, with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.


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