By now, the dangers of drunk driving are widely known and there’s serious stigma attached to it. But other types of distracted driving – though they pose a similar level of risk – are still alarmingly common.
And it’s not just texting and driving (although that’s a terrifyingly dangerous behavior). Many people still feel comfortable multi-tasking while driving in a variety of ways, from eating fast food to applying makeup to rubbernecking when passing an accident scene. In 2015, distracted driving resulted in 3,477 deaths and 391,000 injuries in the United States. To raise awareness and combat this frightening trend, the National Safety Council has named April Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
Drivers must start taking distracted driving seriously and not assume they are immune to its dangers. Be aware of the three main types of distracted driving activities and commit to strategies to proactively avoid them.
Distracted Driving Behavior 1: Manual
Manual distracted driving is anything that causes you to take your hands off the wheel while you drive. Think about all the things you do while driving that require using a hand – grabbing your drink for a sip, messing with the radio (or a playlist on your phone), or reaching for something on the other side of the car. All of these count as manual distracted driving.
If you’ve been driving for a long time, you may feel like you can handle doing these things while driving, but if you have to make a sudden decision to avoid a collision while you’ve got a drink in your hand, you’re at a disadvantage.
7 Ways to Avoid Manual Distracted Driving Behaviors
To start, carefully monitor your driving behaviors the next time you’re on the road for every possible occasion you’re tempted to reach away from the wheel. You’ll probably realize you do it much more frequently than you might have thought.
Some recommended steps to consider are:
- If you like to keep a drink handy, make sure it’s within easy reach before you start driving, and try to limit yourself to taking sips while at red lights.
- Put your cell phone out of reach so you won’t be tempted to pick it up. If you’re using it for directions, use a secure mount that’s within your line of sight and which will narrate directions so you don’t have to fiddle with it. You might also considering using an app, airplane mode, or otherwise preventing your phone from distracting you while you’re operating your car.
- Choose your playlist, podcast, or radio station before you leave and stick with it.
- Consider the temperature before you buckle up. If you need an extra layer, put your sweater on before you leave, so you’re not tempted to try while driving.
- If you sometimes put on makeup as you drive, make a rule to stop. Get it done before you get in the car, or in the parking lot after you reach your destination.
- Don’t eat while you drive. If you’re on a long trip and know you’ll need food, use food stops as a break from driving.
- Don’t smoke while driving.
Distracted Driving Behavior 2: Visual
Visual distracted driving is anything that gets you to look away from the road. This can include both distractions outside of the car, like a wreck, funny billboard, or a beautiful field of flowers, and those within the car like the person in the passenger seat.
Visual focus is crucial to safe driving. Visual distractions pull focus away from seeing how well you’re staying in your own lane, spotting road signs, or seeing what the cars around you are doing.
5 Tips to Avoid Visual Distracted Driving Behaviors
Unfortunately, you have limited control over what will happen outside your vehicle on your drive, so avoiding distracted driving in those moments will be mostly a matter of practicing willpower when you’re on the road and faced with something interesting in your peripheral view.
You can take some proactive steps to avoid in-the-car visual distractions before you get going:
- Make rules for kids in the car to stay (reasonably) quiet and avoid fighting. Do your best to avoid looking back when they do make noise.
- If your pets aren’t great at settling in while you drive, keep them in a carrier in the car.
- As mentioned above, put your phone out of reach so you won’t be tempted to look at it, and if you use a GPS, enter the address before you start driving.
- If you get lost, don’t check the map while driving. Pull over to figure out where you need to go.
- Make sure your radio, music, or podcast is set to where you want it to be. If you’ll be driving for a while, prepare a playlist so you can avoid messing with it while you’re driving.
Plus One Visual “Do” for Driving
Do make sure you are aware of your surroundings. It might seem like a silly reminder, but driving becomes such a habitual experience for so many people that they often zone out on regular commutes. It’s important to make driving an active and conscious activity.
The first priority is looking ahead into the path which you are steering your vehicle. However, make sure you’re aware of vehicles or other bodies moving toward your car from the sides or behind you as well. Gaze around both your immediate environment and into the distance for any potential scenarios which might require you to stop or move for safety’s sake.
Distracted Driving Behavior 3: Cognitive
Cognitive distracted driving is extremely common and especially hard to avoid. This includes any type of distraction that causes your mind to wander from the task of driving.
As we’ve discussed, the more you drive, the more monotonous the task becomes and it’s easy to go into autopilot and think about all sorts of things other than your driving. That makes avoiding cognitive distracted driving especially tricky.
6 Tips to Avoid Cognitive Distracted Driving Behaviors
Even though it’s hard, there are steps you can take to reduce the risks of cognitive distracted driving:
- Don’t drink! This goes for manual and visual driving behaviors as well, as alcohol can impede all forms of focus required to drive safely. Even drinking within the legal limits can affect your brain
- Limit conversations. Tell your passengers upfront you can’t do a lot of talking while you drive.
- Make sure you’re rested. Falling asleep at the wheel has proven deadly too many times. Drink your coffee before your morning commute or plan to stop at a hotel if on a long road trip. Don’t try to power through late into the night or overnight – it’s not worth it.
- Keep your phone out of reach, but also avoid Bluetooth calls. While Bluetooth reduces the risk of visual and manual distracted driving, it’s still a cognitive distraction.
- If you get angry or upset about something while driving, pull over and take some time to calm down.
- Practice mindfulness. That may sound unrelated, but it trains your brain to focus better. When your mind starts to wander while driving, you’ll be better at bringing your focus back to the task at hand.
Driving is something you probably do every day, so it’s easy to get complacent and assume you don’t have to worry, since your driving is usually fine.
But preventable accidents happen every day and the consequences of them are often disastrous. Taking a few proactive steps can increase your chances of avoiding those consequences and continuing to enjoy safe driving in the days to come.