Distracted Driving — Overview & Guidelines

The subject of distracted driving, perhaps surprisingly, leaves experts in various fields debating precisely what it is!

Indeed, at the first International Conference on Distracted Driving (Toronto, October 2005) a significant proportion of the three-day-event was devoted to exactly this question. For example, researchers had one viewpoint, police officers another, and presumably legislators or educators might lean towards other definitions.

If safety is to be more important than semantics, however, it is perhaps best to take a ‘broad brush’ approach to the subject.

Many forms of distracted driving – though by no means all – involve a driver not having both hands on the wheel. The point at which this behavior escalates from ‘mere’ thoughtless or lazy driving to actual distraction is, in itself, debatable, but as both of these are undeniably bad driving, it can be argued that the definition itself is unimportant.

So here is the first important point:  A truly good driver keeps both hands correctly positioned (i.e. ‘ten and two’ or ‘nine and three’ only, never the recent dangerous fad for ‘eight and four’) on the wheel at all times except when using another essential vehicle control. And note the specific reference to vehicle control, as this does not include things like audio or navigation controls, which should always be left until a safe, convenient moment.

The second important point is that distractions often do not occur in isolation. A bad driver may participate in more than one bad habit or technique simultaneously and this can clearly only serve to increase the potential danger.

Although the following point should be obvious, it does need to be stressed that driver distraction is entirely symptomatic of poor driver attitude and it is therefore up to each and every individual driver to be responsible.


Among the most commonly recognized distractions are:

  • Adjusting non-essential controls (such as radio/CD, navigation equipment, etc.)
  • Objects, incidents or people outside the vehicle
  • Smoking;
  • Eating and/or drinking;
  • Illness, grief, stress or an argument – be aware of these;
  • Personal grooming (brushing hair, applying makeup, shaving, etc.);
  • Leaning to retrieve a dropped object, or looking for documents, directions, cigarettes, candies, etc.;
  • Touching a pet or – even worse – having one sitting on the driver’s lap;
  • Reading, or looking at a map;
  • Writing notes or keying e-mails, etc.;
  • Getting too involved with child passengers, especially if this involves looking around;
  • For young drivers, specifically, the distractions created by having young passengers;
  • Cell phones – hand-held, or hands free;
  • Illegal or portable devices such as DVD players that are visible from the driver’s seat while the vehicle is in motion.

From this non-exhaustive list, it is clear that all of these potentially challenging situations can easily be avoided either by allowing time for stops, during the journey (and therefore creating time to check voice mail, make phone calls, eat, drink, check the map, give kids a break from the monotony of a longer journey, and so on), or by the simple application of common sense!

Consider the benefits of periodic stopping. This applies in particular to the very drivers who are anxious not to stop at all — people like salesmen and delivery drivers.  But just as the ability to drive correctly is diminished by the act of talking on a cell phone, so can the quality of a business conversation be diminished by the fact that one is also trying to concentrate on driving. Would it not be far more professional and better for clients if — for example — they were able to have a sales representative’s completeattention during phone conversations?

Importantly, the ‘take a break’ approach also combats another major killer, in the form of drowsy driving. On longer journeys, it is extremely important for a driver to take a break every two hours or 140 miles, whichever comes first.  How best to truly protect oneself from the serious dangers of drowsy driving is the subject of separate guidelines.

Guidelines Regarding Cell Phones Use:

  • The safest guideline of all is simply this:  Do not use a cell phone while driving — period. If you feel that you cannot abide by that lifesaving rule, please DO at least observe the following points:
  • If using a hand-held phone, dial only when stopped, or have a passenger do the dialing for you;
  • Even though the act of physically dialing a hand-held cell phone while driving is a danger in its own right, research has shown that the cognitive distraction from a hands-free cell phone is just as serious as that from a hand-held,and it is this that creates the most serious danger;
  • Detailed research by the TRL has shown that the distraction from having a conversation on either type of cell phone extends a driver’s reaction time as much as does having a Blood Alcohol Concentration [BAC] at the legal limit of 0.08%;
  • Do conversations with passengers in your vehicle cause as much distraction as conversations with other people by cell phone?  No.  Research has shown very clearly, for a variety of reasons, that this is not the case. Conversations with passengers have proved to be significantly less distracting and can even have some advantages;
  • Let voicemail take your incoming calls.  It is very wise to alter the message for incoming voicemail to inform callers that if you are driving you will not answer calls, but that you do stop and check your messages regularly and will call back promptly;
  • If you must make or take a call while driving (which, in terms of safety, truly is unwise and in some states is illegal)tell the other party that the call must be brief as you are behind the wheel, then abide by that brevity;
  • If traffic gets busy or driving conditions deteriorate in any way whatsoever, tell the other party that for the sake of your safety you will have to call back in a few minutes time when you have found somewhere safe to lawfully stop;
  • If you are swiftly caught in a bad traffic situation, in mid-conversation, try telling the other party: “Hang on a moment, please. I’ve got bad traffic.”  Then safely deal with the driving challenge before resuming the conversation;
  • In particular, avoid stressful or emotional conversations by cell phone, when driving;
  • To summarize:  It is infinitely preferable never to use any type of cell phone while you are driving. Stopping may be inconvenient, but which is more important, your convenience or your life?
  • Are there any good points about having a cell phone with you while driving?     Yes, of course.  The use of cell phones at crash scenes, for example, has already saved hundreds of lives, and such phones also provide a security lifeline for vulnerable people who are traveling alone.

If you want to make sure that you reach a ripe old age, or that you stay alive to be a parent to your own kids, and that you neither rob another parent of their own child nor rob a child of its own parent, distracted driving is not an option.

It is so easy for us all rather pathetically to believe “it will never happen to me”. But of the 120 people that are slaughtered every average day on the roads of the USA alone, how many of them did think “Oh, yes. It must be my turn to be killed in a road crash soon!”

Multiplying your speed in miles-per-hour by 1.5 will give you your speed in feet-per-second, which is much more revealing, so just three seconds’ distraction at 70mph will take you the length of a football field, during which you will see nothing!

Only YOU can decide how to deal with this topic, but consider the price your family and friends – or quite possibly somebody else’s loved ones – will pay if just once too often you get it wrong.

Copyright © 2005, Eddie Wren