Keeping Eyes on the Road

Busy schedules and workloads can leave drivers with the temptation to try to multitask while driving a moving vehicle, and the confidence that they can do it safely. The National Safety Council, however, notes in its guide on driver distraction, that people “cannot accomplish more than one cognitively demanding task in the same time frame with optimal focus and effectiveness given to each task. One task is primary and the other is secondary.” 

NSC data showed that about 276,000 people in the United States suffered injuries in 2018 because of distracted driving. In the same year, 2,841 deaths resulted from distracted driving. One in five of those fatalities were pedestrians or bicyclists, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. 

Distracted driving is older than mobile communication devices. Even so, the growing use of such devices by drivers has brought increased awareness to distracted driving. Many think of distracted driving as involving texting or using a handheld device, but it can be any activity that diverts attention away from the road. The South Carolina Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund reported a 17% increase in those motor vehicle accidents that were indicative of distracted driving in 2020. 

Safe driving requires full attention, and distractions can come in three forms: visual, manual and cognitive. 

Visual distractions
Visual distractions are those that take the driver’s eyes off the road. Examples include looking at the radio to make an adjustment, shifting attention to an object or activity on the roadside, consulting a map or reading a text message. 
A driver who is traveling 55 miles per hour and reads a text message for 4.6 seconds will travel the length of a football field without looking at the road. Functionally, this could be like driving that length blindfolded, with no ability to see the road ahead or to identify potential hazards. A driver should maintain a proper lookout and know the surroundings at all times while operating a vehicle.   

Manual distractions
Safe driving requires both hands on the steering wheel. Any activity that takes either hand off the steering wheel is a manual distraction. Some examples are changing the radio station, going through the console, reaching into the passenger seat, eating, drinking, smoking, applying makeup or grooming, or using a mobile device. When both hands are not on the wheel, drivers may have delayed responses to hazards, reducing their ability to drive defensively. 

Cognitive distractions
Cognitive or mental distractions occur when the driver is thinking about something other than driving —  possibly lost in thought. Examples of cognitive distraction include thinking about something upsetting, daydreaming, conversing with a passenger, talking to someone on a handheld or even hands-free device, or thinking about other tasks requiring attention. Even singing or listening to an audiobook can cause cognitive distraction. When drivers are thinking about something else, then their full attention is no longer on driving. Mental activities that take the mind away from driving can be just as dangerous as visual or manual distractions.  

Reducing distractions 
Cities and towns can encourage safe driving by doing the following:  
  • Make sure employees know the dangers of distracted driving. This can be accomplished by encouraging participation in the National Safety Council’s Defensive Driver Course. Risk Management Services’ loss control staff offers the four-hour course to SCMIT and SCMIRF members.   
  • Establish a distracted driving policy banning all employee use of cell phones or mobile devices while driving, including use of hands-free and voice command systems. 
  • Keep awareness at a high level by discussing safe driving strategies in team meetings and safety meetings.  
  • Participate in Distracted Driving Awareness Month each year in April to reinforce the distracted driving policy and encourage employees to take the messaging home to their families and friends.
Driver awareness not only reduces the potential of causing an accident, but it enables drivers to take evasive action to avoid a collision when another driver makes a negligent maneuver. If drivers must engage in an activity that requires taking their eyes off the road, their hands off the steering wheel, or their mind off driving, then pulling over in a safe location is the best practice.