Driven to Distraction: The Dangers Of Inattentive Driving

Distracted driving is practically an epidemic these days. Texting, talking on the phone, eating, drinking, and even keeping an eye on the GPS all can make drivers lose focus, take their eyes off the wheel, and wind up in devastating car crashes.

When a driver sends or receives a text, for instance, they are taking their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. This may not sound like a long time, but "If [he or she] is driving at 55 mph, that's like driving the length of a football field blindfolded," says Christopher Sorrentino, RN, BSN, MS. Sorrentino is the Pediatric Trauma Program Manager in the Department of Trauma Surgery at Staten Island University Hospital in Staten Island, NY.

The effects of this kind of inattention can be devastating: "Not seeing the car stopping in front of you while turning around to chastise a child, slamming into a child darting into the street while reaching for the high note in a songóthe consequences of distracted driving are pure and simple tragedy," says Marc Leavey, MD, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "Death, property damage, and profound injury can occur, all from just not paying attention."

Major Causes of Distracted Driving

The top causes of distracted driving are using electronic devices such as cell phones, the radio, the driver's state of mind, conversing with passengers, eating or drinking, reading(!) or taking notes, and applying makeup, says Sorrentino.

"We all live and work hectic lives with crazy schedules, and with our smart phones and smart cars, it is tempting to continue our work while on the go," he says. "But distracted driving is a major cause of preventable injury and fatality due to motor vehicle collisions. Some 16 percent of fatal crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving and 20 percent of injury crashes that year involved reports of distracted driving."

Whoís Behind the Wheel?

Young and inexperienced drivers are the most likely to drive while distracted. Some 27% of distracted drivers in fatal crashes are in their 20s, and this age group also has the biggest proportion of drivers who are distracted, according to Distraction.gov, a U.S. government website. Teens are distracted when they drive, too: Some 25% of teenagers respond to a text message once or more every time they drive, according to the site. And some 20% of teens and 10% of parents admit that they carry on multi-message text conversations while behind the wheel.

Distracted driving is not a problem thatís going away, although the number of individuals killed in distraction-affected crashes did decrease slightly from 3,360 in 2011 to 3,328 in 2012.

Road Rules

Here are two tips for staying distraction-free on the road:

  1. Turn your cell phone off or put it in airplane mode while you are driving. "And if you have to engage is a cell phone conversation, use a hands-free device," says Samuel Prater, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the UT Health Science Center at Houston, and medical director of emergency services at Memorial Herrmann Hospital. "Although statistics show that this is not necessarily safer," he admits.
  2. Keep your hands on the wheel, watch your mirrors, and stay alert. "Donít put on makeup, shave, or read the newspaper balanced on the steering wheel," Leavey advises. "Donít pay attention to the radio or music player. Drive!"

"Itís crucial that we start to take action to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors from a lifetime of pain," Sorrentino concludes. "Pay attention and put the phone down. Whatever or whoever it is, can wait."

Samuel J. Prater, MD, reviewed this article.

Sources

Prater, Samuel, MD. Phone interview on March 26, 2015.

Sorrentino, Christopher, RN, BSN, MS. Email interview on March 26, 2015.

Leavey, Marc, MD. Email interview on March 28, 2015.

"Facts and Statistics." Distraction.gov. Accessed March 29, 2015.