Eyes on the Road, Hands on the Wheel

This archived article is from February 2003. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Driving is a very demanding task, yet almost all drivers try to do other things while behind the wheel. The Canada Safety Council warns drivers always to give the driving task their top priority.

Ever tried to switch a CD or find a radio station while driving? Ever spilled coffee in the car? Ever been so caught up in a conversation that you missed your turn - or worse, went through a red light? Ever seen other drivers reading the paper, or grooming themselves in the rear view mirror? Almost all of us have either observed or been guilty of multi-tasking behind the wheel.

"Multi-tasking behind the wheel has become very common," comments Canada Safety Council president Emile Therien. "Drivers eat, use laptop computers, talk on the phone, and try to stop their kids from fighting. Any distraction can be dangerous if it takes your attention off the road."

Driving is one of the most demanding tasks we do, says Therien, yet a lot of drivers treat it as a secondary activity. He warns that unless you always give the driving task your top priority, you're bound to have a mishap sooner or later - and it could be a serious one. Driver distraction in its various forms contributes to about nine per cent of serious or fatal crashes.

Our society has to a great extent condoned multitasking while driving. Most vehicles have cup holders. Many also have complex in-vehicle systems for navigation and entertainment. Fast food drive-throughs encourage "dashboard dining." Drivers discipline their kids, argue with passengers, use cell phones and other electronic devices, groom themselves, and even read while on the road. In the 2003 Nerves of Steel study commissioned by TheSteelAlliance and Canada Safety Council, 80 per cent of drivers surveyed admitted to multi-tasking behind the wheel.

The Canada Safety Council offers drivers a few tips to minimize distractions and focus on the driving task:

  • Always keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.
  • Ensure all children are properly buckled up.
  • Consume food and beverages when the car is safely stopped.
  • Review driving directions before you start.
  • Avoid involved conversations with passengers.
  • Use a hands-free device with your cell phone, keep conversations short, and never take notes while driving.

Driver Distractions - Risky but Common

Two-phase research project on driver distractions by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center

The Role of Driver Distraction in Traffic Crashes (May 2001) found driver distraction was a factor in about nine per cent of serious or fatal crashes, based on police-reported crashes involving over 32,000 vehicles from 1995 to 1999. Close to 30 per cent of the distraction-related crashes were attributed to something outside the vehicle - people, objects or events. Adjusting a radio, CD player or the like accounted for 11 per cent. Vehicle occupants (children, passengers) were blamed in a further 11 per cent. Eating or drinking led to 1.7 per cent of distraction-related crashes, and 1.5 per cent involved using a cell phone.

Distractions in Everyday Driving (June 2003) used in-car video cameras to see how 70 drivers behaved when they were behind the wheel. The tapes showed that distraction is an everyday occurrence: over three hours of driving, all of the drivers were distracted at some point, 90 per cent by something outside the car and 100 per cent by something inside.

All subjects manipulated vehicle controls and nearly all reached for objects in the vehicle. Almost as many manipulated the sound system or were distracted by objects or events outside the vehicle. About one-third of subjects used a cell phone while driving, and 40 per cent engaged in reading or writing. Drivers engaged in some form of potentially distracting activity up to 16 per cent of the total time their vehicles were moving. Child passengers were about four times, and infants about eight times, more likely to cause distraction than adult passengers.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety funded the research that can be downloaded from its Web site (www.aaafoundation.org).