A Focus on Distraction

Distracted driving has attracted a lot of attention in recent years from the media, policymakers, the research community and the general public. Unfortunately, though, it will likely not come as a surprise that driving while distracted remains a prevalent and risky behavior on the nation's roadways.

In fact, our latest survey data shows that, when asked to reflect on their behaviors while driving over the previous month, more than two thirds of American motorists say they talked on their cell phones, and between a quarter and a third say they sent or read text messages or emails. Adding to the concern, a report we published earlier this year found that drivers who engage in distracting activities behind the wheel are also more likely to report a range of other risky behaviors, from red-light running to speeding.

At the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, our mission is to initiate original research that identifies the causes of traffic crashes, and uncovers solutions for minimizing risks on the road. Our research on distracted driving is part of our broader effort to strengthen the country's traffic safety culture, with the goal of fostering a society that highly values and rigorously pursues safety for all road users.

To that end, we conduct an annual survey of driving-age Americans designed to track drivers' attitudes and behaviors on the road. This Traffic Safety Culture Index has helped us identify a prevailing attitude that can best be characterized by the phrase "Do as I say, not as I do," as high numbers of motorists consistently admit to engaging in the same behaviors that they say constitute a safety threat, and which they find unacceptable. Recalling the prevalence of cell phone use and texting, consider the fact that nearly everybody also said that other drivers who engaged in these behaviors posed a threat to safety, and most (two thirds for hand-held cell phone use, and 95 percent for texting) said these activities were unacceptable.

The prevalence of these behaviors has a devastating real-world impact. Very conservative estimates indicate that at least 3,000 people are killed in the United States each year in crashes involving a distracted driver, and cell phones and texting aren't the only causes. Researchers have identified three forms of driver distraction: visual distractions take your eyes off the road, manual distractions take your hands off the wheel, and cognitive distractions take your mind off the driving task. Given how difficult it is to "observe" a driver's brain, this last type has been the most elusive to researchers. In order to better understand this issue, therefore, we partnered with cognitive experts at the University of Utah to isolate the mental elements of distraction, and to measure their effects on the brains of drivers.

Across three comprehensive experiments, we were able to show that drivers who engage in "hands-free" tasks behind the wheel (such as using a cell phone or interacting with a voice-to-text email system) experience the effects of cognitive distraction, as measured by suppressed brain activity, missed visual cues, slowed reaction times, subjective feelings of stress and tunnel vision. All of this despite the fact that participants kept their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel during all tasks, with one exception: use of a hand-held phone, which produced the same level of mental distraction as a hands-free device! Despite findings like these, the general public perception is that hands-free devices are safer than their hand-held counterparts, with more than three in four drivers indicating this belief on our surveys.

In order to solve the distracted driving problem, each of us must evaluate our own performance, and accept the full responsibility that a license to drive entails. In some cases, this may mean that we need to educate ourselves about concerns we were unaware of, such as the fact that "hands-free" doesn't mean "risk-free." In other cases, though, our research shows that many of us really do "get it," but need to shift from an attitude of "Do as I say, not as I do," to one of "leading by example." This requires honestly assessing whether our attitudes are consistent with our behaviors, and holding ourselves to the same standards we apply to "the other guy."

After all, to the other guy, the other guy is you.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.