By Lt. Col. Joseph A. Harvey; Director, Driving Directorate; US Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center
In January 2014, the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center released a 19-question survey tailored specifically for respondents to report their perceptions of distracted driving, awareness of hazards and potential legal implications, and whether they have knowingly participated in any activity that distracted them while driving. A random sample of 1,099 Soldiers was selected for the survey, and some findings are outlined below.
“Don’t text and drive” is a familiar refrain from news and advertisements. Our results show this slogan is only moderately effective, as 19 percent of Soldiers surveyed admitted to texting and driving while acknowledging the laws and policies against it. But is texting the only risky behavior drivers are engaged in behind the wheel? The answer is no: Anything that takes your attention off the task of driving is a distraction.
Today, many people feel they need to be constantly connected to Family and friends. Social media is available on most smartphones and even integrated into some newer models of automobiles, but is it really necessary? Drivers are two times more likely to miss a stop sign and suffer from “inattention blindness” while using a cellphone. The voice-to-text technology being offered in some new cars is also dangerous, because it requires massive brain activity to operate and can make what is outside the vehicle invisible to you.
The survey showed 71 percent of respondents believe drinking and driving is more dangerous than distracted driving. The truth is they are both bad. While drinking affects your reaction times, vision and coordination, distracted driving takes your eyes and mind off the road for the time it takes to send a text or change a CD. A lot can happen in those few seconds.
Many people are under the mistaken impression they can multitask while driving, whether it’s eating, texting friends, flipping through radio stations, brushing their hair or setting a GPS, maybe even all at the same time. In fact, 29 percent of our survey respondents felt they could do it all without affecting their driving performance. That’s a deadly misconception; your mind can only handle one job at a time. While your brain may switch from one task to the next quickly, giving the illusion of multitasking, this jumble of activity keeps it from focusing entirely on the road and hazards around you. Limiting distractions helps ensure you have a safe ride.
The safety of hands-free devices is another fallacy. While headsets and speakerphones allow you to keep both hands on the wheel, the real distraction is the conversation. Of the Soldiers surveyed, 63 percent believed hands-free devices are safe. Cellphone conversations while driving are dangerous, and the only safe option is to pull off the road or wait until you reach your destination to talk.
Leaders play a large role in reducing distracted driving accidents. They can make their Soldiers aware of the dangers, include the topic in their safety briefs, and be the example by not calling or texting their subordinates when they are on the road. Of all survey respondents, 30 percent said they would answer a text or email while driving because it could be “important” to them. A text about something as simple as a change to first formation time could be the reason a Soldier drives through a stop sign. No bit of information is so important that it cannot wait until later.
While on the road this summer, be smart. Turn off your cellphone, preset your radio and GPS, and find a good front-seat passenger to help eliminate distractions inside your vehicle. Focusing on the world outside will help you stay safe and ready for whatever lies ahead.