Everyone has seen it happen: it’s the middle of the day, the car just in front sways back and forth across the line even though the driver is fully coherent. Just so happens that he or she is talking on a cell phone, changing a CD or involved in a passenger conversation and, while seemingly innocent, any one of these may be enough of a distraction to cause an accident.
Driver distraction, says the National Safety Council (NSC), is a key contributor to accidents, and is estimated to be the root cause of between 20 and 30 percent of all motor vehicle accidents in the United States each year. During the week of June 1 through 7, the first week of National Safety Month in the U.S., the NSC is hoping to make drivers more aware of their potentially unsafe behaviors on the road through education and safety measures “that will help Americans avoid traffic accidents caused by driver inattention, cell phone use, drowsy driving, and other distractions.”
A 2001 study by researchers at the University of Utah concluded that cell phone usage – a virtual fact of life for anyone whose business puts them on the road -- resulted in slower response time for drivers, regardless of whether the cell phone was handheld or hands-free. Additionally, the researchers also concluded that talking on a cell phone while driving can take the driver’s attention away from the visual environment and cause what the researchers called “inattention blindness” – a situation where the driver doesn’t register or recognize objects in his or her visual field. A study released by the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina in 2002 showed that drivers using cell phones were also more than twice as likely to be involved in a rear-end collision.
But while 60 percent of all cell phone calls are made while driving, cell phones aren’t the only driver safety issue at stake. Drowsy driving also has an affect on driver and traveler safety, says the NSC, leading to 100,000 automobile crashes each year. The 2003 Nerves of Steel survey, conducted annually by The Steel Alliance to find out the status of driver and road safety, concurred. Thirty-six percent of all North American respondents to the survey said they had fallen asleep while driving (with a high of 45 percent in Denver) while 76 percent of the respondents said they had driven while drowsy. As for multi-tasking activities, women were three times more apt to participate the category of “combing hair, shaving or putting on makeup” while behind the wheel.
From an ergonomics perspective, driving safely isn’t necessarily about being a good driver or a bad driver, it’s about the limits of human capabilities and the ability to perform in any given situation. The problem in driver distraction arises when people take on other responsibilities or activities while also performing the task of driving. It's human nature. Unfortunately, in a situation like driving, the driver is already being bombarded with information like how fast the car is going, what the car in the next lane is going to do or where is the exit is. But when other tasks are added into the mix (where is that ringing phone? what CD should be next? what are the kids yelling about in the backseat?), the brain may inadvertently give way for that task by eliminating another important one.
In addition, humans need sleep, and work best with regularly scheduled sleep. Driving for extended periods of time without sleep is not a good match of task to human capabilities and limitations. And, while it may not directly affect driver distraction, the static position of sitting in a vehicle for a long period could be a risk factor for back pain as well. Truck drivers, for instance, have a higher-than-average amount of low back problems attributed to this.
Sources: National Safety Council; The Steel Alliance