You call that distracted driving?

On a trip back to college from my home town one weekend, I noticed a gentleman engrossed in the Sunday comics.

Normally I wouldn’t have taken a second look, except that this man was enjoying the funnies while driving a 4,000-pound family sedan, zipping along a busy interstate at 65 miles per hour, comics conveniently supported by the steering wheel as he drove.

Sure, I had heard horror stories of people driving while simultaneously performing a variety of tasks unrelated to the actual act of driving. But it wasn’t until I actually observed someone doing it that I acknowledged it as a real happening, not to mention the serious implications of this lapse in automotive judgment.

Fast-forward several years, and the driving experience has been redefined with the advent of mobile phone technology. The 1980s saw the introduction of car phones, giving way to mobile phones in the 1990s. And a February 2014 Nielsen study reported that two-thirds of all Americans now have smartphones.

With the number of automobiles on our planet now surpassing 1 billion, the marriage of these two statistics suggests that the usage of cell phones in cars is proliferating.

A government website dedicated to distracted driving defines the phenomena as “any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.” A cursory search would lead you to believe that texting and talking on cell phones while driving are the prime offenders. And yes, while a great deal of legislation has been drafted and implemented to bring heightened awareness to these activities, they are by no means the sole tools of driver inattention.

Consider the following additional diversions (not an all-inclusive list, by any means):

· Eating and drinking
· Talking to passengers
· Grooming
· Reading (including maps)
· Using a navigation system
· Watching a video
· Adjusting a radio, CD, or MP3 player

For anyone who thinks these activities wouldn’t compromise a driver’s ability to quickly and effectively focus on the road and their surroundings, think again. The following videos offer compelling evidence:

A 2013 Victoria, Australia TAC (Transport Accident Commission) TV commercial, “Distracted drivers are dangerous,” showing several sobering clips, all examples of drivers’ attentions being momentarily diverted due to distractions from the task of driving.

A 2014 WorkSafeBC (Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia) video that underscores the potential tragic consequences of taking your eyes off the road for just 3 seconds, at 30 miles an hour.

As technology continues to expand, improve, and become more accessible, it stands to reason that it will continue to integrate into our driving experience. Along with it, the perceived sense of “control” we, as drivers, feel we have over our environment every time we get behind the wheel – so much so to where we think nothing of taking on one more drain of our attention, whatever that may be.

But are we really in control? What is the point at which the driver’s attention is compromised to where they could not make the needed crucial life-saving decision in a split second?

Sadly, no one knows until that moment passes, and it’s too late. We are momentarily affected by these tragic stories, like that of the young wife of a former co-worker of mine in Iowa several years ago who, while driving the family minivan on a busy interstate, turned to check on her two young girls, only to face forward and realize, too late to react, that the semi-truck in front of her had slammed on his brakes.

And then, all too quickly, we say, “That won’t happen to me — I’m in control” as we reach over to retrieve the stray change that slipped onto the floor mat from the drive-through visit.

Famous last words.

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