Distracted Driving

Driving is inherently multitasking – for example, you need to coordinate your movements, keep your eye on the road and monitor your entire field of vision, be aware of the constantly changing, not always predictable traffic around you, the cars, the pedestrians, the signs, the roadwork, keeping in mind the route that will take you where you need to go and of course everything you need to know in order to operate your vehicle and participate in traffic.

Especially if you are an experienced driver on a routine route, you may find yourself on “autopilot”, mentally attending to things you need to do that day rather than thinking about the process of driving. Many people also eat or have a drink while driving, at least occasionally. Familiar routes lull drivers into a false sense of security: data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that over half of all collisions occur within 5 miles of the driver’s home, and nearly 70% within a 10-mile radius.

While some distractions (like daydreaming) have been around much longer than cars and driving, numerous others faced by modern drivers may actually pose a much greater threat to our roads’ safety.

The modern driver’s attention is fragmented to an unprecedented extent - calls coming in on your cell, texts that seem to expect immediate, conversation-like replies, your GPS system giving you directions or asking for input. Of course, you know the rules as well as the reasoning behind them, but the demand for our attention from these devices is not always easy to ignore.

Some of the major distractions identified as hazards in driving involve not only talking on the phone, texting, browsing and attending to onboard electronics but also fatigue, children or pets grabbing your attention, eating or drinking. Sobering statistics and useful tips are available on the government website dedicated to distracted driving: http://www.distraction.gov/content/get-the-facts/index.html

It may be clear that a driver causing a collision because he or she was texting, applying make-up, or taking a selfie while driving should be held responsible. However, not all cases of distracted driving are as clear-cut, and, as we learn to live with these technologies, we will also need to establish a more functional system that will allow us to enjoy these privileges safely.

A good case in point comes from a recent pedestrian-vehicle collision in San Francisco, where distracted driving, one party claims, may have played a part.

When young Sophia Liu was killed in San Francisco, she had the right of way and the driver had a green light and was making a right-hand turn. But some of the witnesses in the case also claimed they could see a bluish glow on the driver’s face, a reflection of his phone, just as the tragic incident unfolded.

The reason why the family is suing not only the driver of the car but also the on-demand car service he works for Uber, is that they believe that the apps that notify drivers of new fares were a factor in their daughter’s death. The company’s response was that since there was no Uber passenger in the driver’s (privately owned) car at the time, the incident does not relate to their services.

This may be a special case, but it should get everyone thinking about the distractions we excuse in our everyday driving practices. Warnings such as this one shouldn’t fail to register with employers, coworkers, partners and anyone else who is on the other side of the distraction. More broadly, a discussion is long overdue now about the blurring of lines separating our work from our time off, as well as about the safe and healthy ways to live with new technologies.

Incidents involving a distracted driver result in 9 fatalities and over 1,000 injured every day in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving/

Distractions are bound to remain inherent to driving; however, until autonomous cars become a reality, we will need to find better ways of incorporating these relatively recent gadgets into our driving.

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