According to the National Safety Council’s Injury Facts 2016, the top three causes of fatalities on the road are drunk driving, speeding and distracted driving. It is estimated that distracted driving accounts for approximately 26% of those deaths, while drunk driving is the top cause and accounts for roughly 31% of road fatalities. It is certainly reasonable to think that distracted driving could be higher. As the stigma on distracted driving (especially cell phone usage) has changed over the years, fewer people are admitting to police officers that they were, in fact, distracted. As a result, it has become challenging to record accurate numbers.
Public entities have a high volume of drivers on the road. This exposure is greatly amplified by emergency response personnel who, when on a call, can easily fit the definition of “distracted”. Not only do we have to guard against employees driving distracted, but we also have to consider that the general public could be distracted when driving through our work areas.
Distractions come in all forms, ranging from the unavoidable (school zones, construction, accident scenes, road conditions) to the avoidable (cell phone usage, eating, drinking, talking to passengers, operating internal equipment). Whether labeled as avoidable or unavoidable, all of these instances amount to valid distractions that impair drivers, and this is important for our employees to understand.
Distractions can be categorized into three main areas:
- Manual – Anything that requires us to remove our hands from the steering wheel.
- Visual – Anything that requires us to take our eyes off of the road.
- Cognitive – Anything that requires us to take our mind off the task of driving.
Meeting any one of these three criteria constitutes a distracted driver. Can you think of a scenario that meets all three? The most common answer here is cell phone usage because cell phones require manual, visual and cognitive application. Studies have shown the impairments by talking on a cell phone (hands-free or handheld) while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while intoxicated. These studies found that drivers talking on cell phones were:
- More oblivious to changing conditions.
- Unable to stay in the center lane.
- More likely to miss exits.
Researchers also noted a decrease in brain activity in both the parietal and occipital lobes. Operating a vehicle while distracted can lead to a condition called “inattention blindness”, which is essentially when you “look but do not see”. This is largely due to the fact that your brain has dedicated too many resources elsewhere and cannot fully process the pertinent information at hand.
There are many things we can do to reduce our exposure to distracted driving, but it all starts with a strong written policy, employee training and management commitment. The National Safety Council has some good materials on distracted driving. You can also check with your insurance partners on resources that they have available.