Scared Straight: Eyes On the Road, Distracted Drivers

April’s monthlong National Distracted Driving Awareness might be done by just a couple days, but May takes the topic of traffic safety worldwide with Global Youth Traffic Safety Month.

Auto insurers and traffic safety groups have joined in several collaborations increasing awareness and promoting safety about distracted driving, which has become today’s foremost concern on American roadways.

In this post, we’ll review the latest in the fight against distracted driving, from a university’s study highlighting the little-known distractions created by voice-activated devices to new federal guidelines combating the distracting devices in your car.

Eyes On the Road

A California judge, ruling recently on a distracted driving case, said that fiddling with anything while driving requires use of your hands — and those hands should be on the wheel.

But distraction may not belong exclusively to those extremities. A Texas A&M study released last month delved into a meaty question: Am I still distracted if I don’t manually text or type?

After all, most pieces of statewide legislation banning texting still allow voice-activated devices, instead targeting the driver’s use of hands while behind the wheel as the chief, unsafe distraction.

So that means Siri is safe, right?

Wrong, according to the study, but that doesn’t mean people don’t believe it.

Using 43 participants and three texting options (manually, with iPhone’s Siri, and with Android’s Vlingo) on a closed course, researchers found that, although participants felt more unsafe texting compared to not texting at all, they felt that voice-to-text apps were the safest.

So very wrong, researchers said.

Not only did voice-activated texting take longer than manual texting, but all three texting options slowed reaction times and took away safe eye movements for the driver at the same rates, according to the study.

An accompanying survey uncovered disturbing trends about drivers’ addict-like texting habits and how it holds true even when they get behind the wheel.

For starters: the number of those surveyed saying that they did not text every day? Zero.

Most of the participants, just over half, said they averaged between six and 20 text messages daily. A hefty amount, 35 percent, said they sent between 21 and 99 texts a day.

That doesn’t put a scare in you yet?

How about this: 72 percent said yes to the question “do you text and drive?”

Less scary (but still scary): Almost 1 out of every 3 participants responded that they text while the car is stopped.

Pretty much the scariest finding: 16 percent of drivers surveyed said they text while the car is in motion several times a day. That means that a handful of the participants of the test, conducted at a relatively slow 30 mph, text at the worst possible moments while driving. Several times. Every day.

But enough of the scare tactics. That same survey can instill some little faith when it comes to how drivers feel about texting while driving (even if they still engage in it regularly): 66 percent said they thought texting while the car is moving is “unsafe” or “very unsafe.”

As the public gets more distracted while driving, it also seems to be saying the right things about safety. Auto insurers are catching on.

Allstate’s Reality Rides tour is bringing a driving simulator to towns across the U.S. to convince drivers of what teenager Kollen Benz concluded after a simulated, distraction-filled ride: “It was hard.”

“It’s hard to focus on the phone and where you’re driving and with the construction zone it was just really overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve texted and driven before, it’s just I didn’t think it was that difficult. After the simulation, I definitely really realized that it’s harder than I think it is and definitely more dangerous.”

Allstate (and every driver who values their lives) hopes that lesson ends with the decisive action that Reality Rides participant Stephanie Falls plans to take.

“I know I would tell my other friends that do text and drive that it is not safe at all,” Falls said. “And you should not do it at all.”

The Culprit: Your Car

So enough of laying blame on drivers (and Siri). Could it actually be the car itself that’s creating distractions?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) new guidelines over in-car devices give 281 pages of advice for automakers who love cramming their new car models with gadgets galore.

The new federal guidelines made the same recommendation a recent article in the Journal of American Medical Association made: certain devices should be automatically shut off when the car is in motion.

Those devices, according to the NHTSA, are:
–manual texting devices
–internet-browsing devices
–infotainment and entertainment devices with video, including video phones with video conference capabilities

The NHTSA document is extensive, but the takeaway for any driver is this: any task that takes your eyes off the road for more than 12 seconds isn’t recommended.

If you’re not scared straight yet, here’s the final alert.

The guidelines came with a new NHTSA study on the distractions of texting that looked at how long average drivers take their eyes off the road to text.

So how much time did the text take on average? Nearly double the recommended max in NHTSA’s guidelines: 23.3 seconds total.

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