When a Text Message Can Kill You: Understanding the Risks of Distracted Driving

April 26, 2023
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Can you imagine driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed? That’s the equivalent of what you’re doing when you take your eyes off the road to look at your cell phone for just five seconds while driving 55 mph.

Put in those terms, it’s hard to imagine taking that risk —but the truth is, distracted driving is all too common. Results from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s annual Traffic Safety Culture Index showed that about 26% of drivers admitted to driving while typing on their mobile device at least once in the past month. More than one-third (37%) reported talking on the phone and 36% admitted to reading a hand-held device while driving.

Distracted driving is any activity that takes attention away from the task of safe driving. This can include talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, adjusting the volume, or looking at a navigation system.

You cannot drive safely unless the task of driving has your full attention. Any non-driving activity you engage in is a distraction and increases your risk of crashing and endangers you, your passengers, and others on the road.

The Centers Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there are three main types of distracted driving:

  • Visual: taking your eyes off the road
  • Manual: taking your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive: taking your mind off driving

Note that texting involves all three types of distraction! Other distractions can include driving with a pet on your lap, adjusting the temperature, smoking, and even singing.

Distracted driving increases the chance of a motor vehicle crash and death. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving claimed 3,522 lives in the United States in 2021. The CDC reports that every day nine people in the U.S. are killed in crashes involving a distracted driver. About one in five of the people who died in distracted driver crashes in 2019 were not even in vehicles – they were either walking, riding their bikes, or otherwise outside a vehicle.

What Causes Distracted Driving?

Concern over distracted driving isn't new. According to Massachusetts crash-prevention group driveincontrol.org, state legislatures first tried to restrict car radios in the 1930s because of concern that they could distract drivers and lead to crashes. Today, there are many more potential distractions within vehicles, including text messages, social media notifications, talking GPS apps, visual screens on car dashboards, and more.

It's safe to say with all the news stories, public service campaigns, and laws, most people know that distracted driving is a bad idea. But surprisingly, even with clear evidence, the risky behavior continues. For example, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, over 84% of drivers recognize the danger from cell phone distractions and find it “unacceptable” that drivers text or send email while driving. However, 36% of these same people admit to having read or sent a text message or email while driving in the previous month. Many mistakenly think they are an exception, a common cognitive bias called superiority illusion.

Why Do People Think They Can Drive Distracted?

Under the superiority illusion, drivers consistently rate themselves as better than average, even when an objective test of their skills rates them below average. It’s true of new and experienced drivers alike.

A major challenge to solving the issue of distracted driving is what researchers call the “third person” effect when people assume it’s the other person who’s the problem. Someone may think they are better at multitasking than someone else, for example. The reality is the concept of multitasking itself is a misconception. Studies done on the ability to multitask have revealed important facts about the processing limitations of our brains. A study cited in the NIH article Multicosts of Multitasking shows that the human brain lacks the ability to perform two or more tasks simultaneously. Meaning, what people call multitasking is switching between one task and another —not doing more than one thing at the same time.

These two issues combined mean that drivers may consider themselves the exception to the rule of distracted driving dangers, and think they’re better at multitasking than others.

How to Reduce Distracted Driving Habits

Now that you know the facts, you can reduce your own distracted driving habits, and be an advocate for safe driving among your family and friends.

As a driver, think about your own distracted driving habits and how you can reduce them. Are you frequently eating breakfast during the morning commute? Consider building in extra time to eat before you get on the road. Do your eyes stray to your phone when you hear it buzz, despite your best intentions? Put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode when you get in the car, and then tuck it away in your bag or center console. Think about your specific habits and how you might change them to be a safer driver.

As a passenger, speak up when you see someone else driving distracted! Tell a texting or otherwise-distracted driver that it makes you uncomfortable and isn’t safe. You could save a life.

Distracted Driving PSA

Teens from the Baystate Springfield Educational Partnership created this PSA about the dangers of texting while driving. Share to bring more awareness to the dangers of distracted driving.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s anti-distracted driving pledge

Take the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s anti-distracted driving pledge, and share it with friends and family to spread the word about the dangers of distracted driving.

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