Distracted Driving: Cell Phones Are Only Part of the Story

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in the past five years as many as 8.3 million drivers were involved in crashes they attributed to being distracted behind the wheel.

What is distracting us? And what should we do about it? NHTSA recently surveyed more than 4,000 drivers to identify unsafe attitudes and behaviors they admit to, if only occasionally. The study focused on 12 potentially distracting behaviors.

Hold the Phone?

Talking on a cell phone made the list, but it was not the most common or most dangerous distraction. In fact, more than half of the 60 percent of drivers with cellular phones say they rarely use their phones in the car.

Perhaps because a driver talking on the phone is so visible, cell phone use is often the focus of public concern. More than half the driving public supports efforts to curb phoning while driving, ranging from awareness campaigns, restrictions on hand-held phones, insurance penalties, higher fines for traffic violations involving cell phone use, and even outright bans.

So What Is Dividing Our Attention?

Crash statistics and behavior reported by drivers surveyed suggest that behaviors most of us take for granted are the most common distractions.

The top three examples of "multitasking" that take people's attention from the road identified in the NHTSA study were:

  • Talking with other passengers.
  • Changing radio stations or looking for CDs or tapes.
  • Making an outgoing or taking an incoming cell phone call.

The next three most common distracted behaviors are dealing with children in the rear seat, reading a map or directions while driving, and engaging in personal grooming.

Less common distractions that made the list include reading printed materials, responding to a beeper or pager, using wireless remote Internet access, and using telematics such as in-car navigation systems.

Distracting Attention...From Our Own Behavior?

When the drivers surveyed were asked to rank how dangerous each activity is, they tended to rank their own habitual behaviors as less dangerous.

Consider this statistical flip-flop, which highlights how reality and perception differ:

  • A little over 80 percent of the drivers surveyed said they talked with other passengers on at least some driving trips, BUT, only 4 percent of those surveyed ranked this as a dangerous distraction.
  • Only 4 percent said they read printed materials behind the wheel on some driving trips, BUT, nearly 80 percent of the drivers surveyed ranked this as highly dangerous behavior.

To raise awareness, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety distributes radio and TV public service announcements on the realities and risks of distracted driving.

Want More Information?

  • Your AAA club can provide additional information and educational materials about distracted driving.
  • The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has published Pay Attention!, a distracted driving brochure with safety recommendations. In collaboration with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, AAA has developed public service announcements for radio and TV to raise awareness about distracted driving.