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     Driver Inattention




Consider this a crash course on "Driver Inattention." We call it a CRASH course, because that is precisely what can happen when drivers become distracted.

Crashes due to driver inattention or distraction are on the rise, taking more and more lives and injuring more people than ever before. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that of all police-reported crashes, 25 percent involve some form of driver inattention.

Driver distraction is nothing new. It's been with us since the advent of the automobile. As long as 70 years ago, lawmakers pondered whether radios should be allowed in cars. Some states banned them. Others decided they were okay as long as they were turned off while driving.

Times certainly have changed. Today, some of our biggest distractions include not only radios, but cell phones, fast food, CD-players, children and pets. We take these things for granted, not realizing that even a split-second diversion of our attention can prove disastrous!

Any time we get into a motor vehicle we are putting ourselves at risk. We know anything from a pothole to a drunken driver could injure or kill us. We always perceive "danger" as coming from "out there," from someone or something else. Seldom do we think that the greatest danger to our safety may actually be ourselves.


You say you always pay close attention while driving? Well let's see.

Have you ever talked on your cell phone while driving? Eaten food? Read the newspaper? Read directions to someplace you were trying to go? Blared the radio or tape player? Chitchatted with other passengers in your car? Shaved? Put on make-up? Combed your hair? Bent down to pick something up off the floor? Lit a cigarette? Ridden with a pet on your lap?

You get the idea.

Just remember, when you're driving, your focus needs to be on your driving. A split-second distraction can cause you to run off the road, rear-end a vehicle that has come to a sudden stop, swerve into the next lane any number of things.

Here's a scary statistic: one crash occurs every seven seconds in the United States. By the time you find and answer your cell phone, a crash has occurred somewhere. Make sure it's not you.

Cell Phones

Cell phones are nice conveniences, but can potentially be deadly. In fact, they are the underlying cause of many crashes. One solution: find a safe place to park before you answer that call. Likewise, if you must make an outgoing call. Another solution: have your incoming cell phone calls routed to your voice mail or message machine until you safely arrive at your destination. "Hands-free" systems are certainly safer, but even these can distract you from the key task at hand - driving.

Fast Food

OK, we all have to eat but don't do it while driving down the road. Searching for that napkin, trying to open that ketchup container or the split second you take to grab a French fry is all it takes.


Blaring music can prevent you from being able to hear sirens from emergency vehicles, train whistles and the horns of other drivers who may be trying to alert you.


Lighting up or putting out a cigarette can distract you. So can flicking hot ashes on yourself or dropping a lit cigarette on yourself or on the floor of your vehicle. Smoke can irritate your eyes, causing blurred vision. If you smoke while you drive, be especially careful and realize its potential to distract you. Also remember that smoke-buildup on windows can distort vision. So if you're a smoker, clean your interior window surfaces frequently.


Slowing down to look at accidents, police cars that have pulled someone over, even looking at articles for sale along the road can cause crashes. Slowing down to gawk at the "action" can affect the driver behind you, who might also be rubbernecking and not realize your car has slowed down.

Loose articles

Empty pop cans. CD's. Books. Come to a quick stop and these and similar items start rolling around. If something happens to lodge beneath your brake pedal or your gas pedal, it can become a disastrous situation. Check your car before you drive. Remove or secure any loose articles, which can become projectiles in the event of a crash.

Children and Pets

Dealing with children and/or pets can be extremely distracting, especially if they are crying, fighting, barking and the like. Insist children are buckled securely in their seat belts (or if under the age of four in their child seat). Separate older children if necessary to keep them from squabbling. Provide them with a book to read or a game to play if they are going to be in the car for an extended period. In the case of pets, always use a pet carrier. Nothing can be more frightening - or dangerous - than to have a pet suddenly jump into your lap and impede your ability to steer or see.

Long Trips

It may sound strange, but driving for long periods of time can also trigger driver inattention. Monotony - driving behind the same vehicles, at the same speed for long distances - can lead to road hypnosis, which dulls the senses and makes a driver accident-prone. So, during longer trips, vary your speed from time to time and take frequent, short breaks to keep yourself refreshed and alert. If you tend to tire while driving long distances, keep fresh orange rinds next to you. The smell of citrus has been found to help drivers stay alert. Also, if you have licensed passengers in your vehicle, ask if they can take the wheel for a while so you can take a break.


Driver distraction is one form of driver inattention. It occurs when some event, activity, object or person inside or outside the vehicle shifts the driver's attention away from the task of driving. It's that "triggering event" that differentiates a distracted driver from one who is simply inattentive or "lost in thought." A recent study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found about half of the driver inattention crashes it reviewed were caused by driver distraction. According to the Foundation, the worst culprits in order of frequency are:

  1. Outside person, object, or event
    (i.e. other vehicles, other drivers, animals, emergency vehicles,
    pedestrians, bicyclists, crash scenes and road construction)
  2. Adjusting radio/cassette/CD
  3. Other occupant
  4. Moving object in the vehicle
  5. Other device or object
  6. Adjusting vehicle or climate controls

Temptations Will Increase

Unfortunately, we expect driving distractions to increase in the near future. New cars will come equipped with Internet and e-mail access that will allow you to keep track of sports scores, stock quotes or your favorite movie star's latest adventures. They'll also have compact TV's, on-board navigation systems, VHS or DVD players for movies, video games and more. Add to that our personal digital assistants (PDA's like the Palm Pilot), wireless headphones, and other gizmos, and we're transforming our roadways into techno tragedy. The truth is, these "innovations" are creating the potential to kill us and others. As our transportation vehicles morph into rolling offices and entertainment centers, traffic experts know crashes will increase. After all, a motorist can absorb only so much stimuli before losing driving focus.

Evidence also indicates that as we age, multiple distractions present an even greater risk. In a recent study, older drivers (age 65 - 75) took 40 percent longer to respond to warning signs than younger drivers. It took older drivers 40 - 70 percent longer to perform map-reading skills while driving, and 80 percent longer to enter information into a navigation system, even when parked.

More Monitoring

In the interest of public safety, many states are beginning to track crash causes more carefully. Eleven states already have a place on crash reports to indicate if a cell phone was being used at the time of the crash. Other states plan to revise their reporting forms in the near future to track such data. New York has banned the use of hand-held cell phones all together, and other states are considering such action.


As our daily lives become busier and busier, many of us feel the need to accomplish something with every free moment we have available to us.

But the next time you succumb to the urge to "make the most" of your driving time, just remember you control a vehicle that weighs more than one ton. It has the capacity to kill and maim. It deserves your undivided attention. When you decide to ignore that fact in order to browse newspaper headlines, put on make up, check voice mail or eat a meal, just ask yourself this simple question: Who's driving?

Safe driving isn't part-time work, it's a full-time job.