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Driving distractions

Posted at 12:25 PM on January 23, 2008 by Nanci Olesen (4 Comments)

Was that you talking on your cell phone while driving the other day? I think I saw you…..

Did you know that 73% of us are talking on cell phones when we drive?

Just a week ago I could’ve been one of those driving talkers/talking drivers.

But I’ve decided to kick the habit. I’ve decided I can’t drive and talk on my phone anymore.

I’m making this choice for myself, because I don’t want to get killed in a crash, OR kill anyone else in a crash.

Get this:

Driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near-crashes (from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute).

There are about 40,000 traffic deaths a year.

Using a cell phone while driving impairs the driver to the same degree that having a blood alcohol level of .08 would. That’s the level that is considered “driving while intoxicated.”

But the stakes are higher for me now than they were a few years ago, because I have a teen driver in my household. The last thing I want him to do is endanger his life or others when he’s out on the road.

And the more I learned about how my actions influence him, the more I realized I had to drive my talk. And not talk and drive.

In a study by Students Against Destructive Decisions(SADD) and Liberty Mutual, nearly 60% of high school students said that the way their parents drive is the way that they will drive.

Combine that with the news that over 60% of those teens report that their parents are talking on their cell phones, and it looks like we’re raising a whole new generation of multi-taskers behind the wheel.

The data is now so clear linking cell phone use and accidents that many states are prohibiting teens from using cell phones when they drive.

Minnesota gives a provisional license in which a teen driver cannot use a cell phone for the first twelve months of their license, or until they turn 18. Some other states have similar laws: Maine, California, Illinois, and Nebraska, among others. They’re all slightly different, but most don’t allow cell phone use until after the age of 18.

There are already so many other distractions for teen drivers. They’re using iPods, switching CD’s, not to mention just participating in raucous behavior. Do you remember car dancing?

But text messaging is huge. One in five teens reports having text messaged WHILE they drive, according to SADD.

I have a hard time comprehending text messaging (because I can’t do it when I’m standing still, much less driving).

Experts are telling us that our brains do not have the ability to multi task and drive, because of what driving presents to us: constant unpredictability.

What about when a deer jumps out of the woods? Or a bicyclist swerves in front of your car? Unpredictable events occur. They’re heart-stopping, and they’re dangerous.

A new study from the University of Utah finds that we drive more slowly when we talk on our phones. You might think, “Well, that’s a good thing.”

But driving slowly while talking on a cell phone results in driving inattentively.

There’s a lot of information that a person is missing if they’re engaging in any sort of distraction in the car instead of giving attention to their driving. David Strayer is one of the researchers from the University of Utah study of driving patterns. He told me that your brain, because it’s distracted, isn’t processing what you’re seeing.

This translates into something called “inattention blindness.” You look at something but it doesn’t register.

University of Utah researchers have an “eyetracker.” They can look and actually see where the driver is looking and then test to see if what they’re looking at registers. About half of what the person who’s talking on a cell phone looks at, they don’t process.

This study also makes clear that the slow drivers on their phones are slowing us all down-- up to an hour a week on our daily commutes. You see it all the time. You swerve past a person who hasn’t noticed the light is green, and the guy is his cell phone.

Are teens picking up the driving habits of their parents?

Um, yes. We know that parents are the biggest influence on kids’ behavior in general. The SADD statistics let us know that kids are watching us and emulating our behavior.

So the conclusion I’ve come to is that the best way that parents can teach attentive driving to their kids is by being attentive drivers themselves.

Do you need some help getting started driving more safely, in order to teach safe driving?

AAA has a list of tips for parents, including making a parent-teen driving contract-- with rules, conditions, restrictions, and most importantly, consequences.

Paying attention to the road and driving well is important not only for your own safety, but for the information your kid is taking in about how to drive in the world.

I’ve got two more kids on their way to getting their driving permits in the next few years. I’ve learned enough in this last week of research to convince me ten times over to stop driving and talking on the phone.

Last week I was just starting this research. I was driving home from MPR. I was on a tame side street, winding along Minnehaha Creek. I thought, “I’ll just call the kids and ask them what movies I should pick up at the video store.” I punched the dial and put the phone to my ear. Suddenly not one, but TWO fire engines, sirens roaring and lights flashing, came barreling toward me. I threw the phone on the floor of the car.

“Okay!” I shouted to my empty car,

“I get it!”


Resources for Parents:

Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety

National Highway Transportation Association: teen drivers

AAA tips for parents

University of Utah Study of Driving Habits


Comments (4)


thanks for this, Nanci, this can't be mentioned often enough.
Pay Attention And Live.

there's a sign somewhere on Highway 52 between the Twin Cities and Rochester that says something like, "pay attention while you're driving!"

Posted by Betty | January 23, 2008 11:48 PM


I've also seen an organization in Florida called "Stay Alive Just Drive."

Since doing this blog entry, podcast and q/a about driving distraction, I have been practicing what I preach. I tell you it makes a world of difference. I feel more relaxed too, just knowing that I'm concentrating on my driving.

I wonder how we got where we are, where we think that we can do so many complicated things at once.

I hope that there's more legislation to reel us back in to becoming responsible, attentive drivers.

There's so much at stake.

Nanci Olesen.

Posted by Nanci Olesen | January 29, 2008 11:18 AM


What is car dancing?

Posted by Charles Hansen | January 31, 2008 7:55 AM


Good question, Charles. I thought everyone did this. Car dancing. The volume of the music is LOUD. The people in the car, driver often included, "dance" in their seats, raising arms, singing along, bouncing up and down to the music... laughing hysterically. I remember dancing like this in the car when I was in high school and college. Okay, on long car trips with my kids even nowadays. But it's not very good behavior for a driver who should be role modeling focus at the wheel.

Posted by Nanci Olesen | February 5, 2008 9:16 AM