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Distracted Driving: Causes, Impacts and Prevention Strategies

Distracted Driving: Causes, Impacts and Prevention Strategies

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Distracted driving occurs when a driver operates a motor vehicle while engaged in another activity that divides his or her attention. Distractions have a huge impact on drivers visual, manual, and cognitive senses and have dangerous repercussions if these senses are impaired. Researchers, State, and federal governments, and even car companies have taken action to bring awareness to and reduce the acts of this dangerous activity.

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It is very necessary to understand the enormous issue that is distracted driving. According to research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving is the cause of approximately 424,000 accident and in 2017 alone claimed at least 3,166 lives (distracted driving). Teen drivers being the biggest perpetrators. Data shows that “21 percent of teen drivers involved in fatal accidents were distracted by their cell phones” and according to a poll taken by AAA almost 95 percent of teen drivers know the dangers of texting and driving, yet 35% admitted to doing it anyway (texting and driving accident statistics). Additionally,  AAA found that compared to adults, a teen driver is 4x more likely to be involved in a car crash when texting on a cell phone (foundation for traffic safety).

There are three types of distracted driving. Visual, Cognitive, and manual. Visual distraction transpires when a driver is looking at other than the road ahead of them. A common example of a visual distraction is texting and driving. The National Safety Council reports that “cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year. Nearly 390,000 injuries occur each year.” Virtually, 390,000, injuries occur every year from texting and driving. Cognitive distraction is when a driver’s mind is focused on something other than driving(Esurance: 3 types of distracted driving). An example of cognitive distraction is talking to another passenger or focusing one’s thoughts on personal or work-related issues. It may seem less risky to be cognitively distracted, however, being mentally distracted slows down one’s reaction time, causes blindness to one’s surroundings, and reduces activity in parts of the brain that are typically active while driving. Lastly, manual distraction occurs when a driver removes one or both hands from the wheel for any reason (Esurance). Common examples of manual distractions include eating/ drinking, adjusting the GPS, messing with the radio, and trying to reach into a purse or wallet. According to a study from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 65 percent of close call collisions are caused by drivers who were eating or drinking while driving (eating while driving).

“Driving is a complex task that involves strategic, tactical, and operational control” (Zhang, Kaber, Rogers, Liang, Gangakhedkar). If you’re driving a vehicle and your attention is on something other than driving, you are not only a hazard to yourself but everyone you are sharing the road with. Studies show that not only is multitasking a myth, but it’s also impossible. Scientific data shows that dual tasking (the performance of two tasks that can be performed independently and have distinct and separate goals) has a direct correlation with reduced activity in parts of the brain essential for attention which causes a poorer performance in driving (Mautz).

In a study published in Human Factors, “The Effects of Visual and Cognitive Distractions on Operational and Tactical Driving Behaviors,” Researchers conducted a study with the objective to test “the effects of two fundamental forms of distraction, including visual-manual and cognitive-audio distraction, with comparison under both operational and tactical driving”(Zhang, Kaber, Rogers, Liang, Gangakhedkar). For this study, researchers formulated two tasks that individually represented a visual-manual and cognitive-audio distraction, which they based on multiple resource theory. Along with the distraction task in a driving simulator, rivers then either performed operational vehicle controls such as ‘lead-car following’ or tactical control maneuvers such as ‘passing’. The drivers’ responses were then measured by their driving performance and visual behavior. The results of the study revealed that drivers’ were able to adapt to either visual or cognitive distractions in the task of ‘following’ but not in ‘passing’. The synchronous distraction condition was eventually the reason for the large gradual decrease in performance amongst the drivers (Zhang, Kaber, Rogers, Liang, Gangakhedkar).

Inattentional blindness also known as perceptual blindness, is a huge factor in distracted driving. Defined as “a lack of attention that is not associated with vision defects or deficits, as an individual fails to perceive an unexpected stimulus in plain sight” (human factors). Inattentional blindness is experienced in drivers especially if they are distracted by things such as texting. When your brain is focused on a certain activity such as talking on the phone, your focus is taken off driving which makes you unaware of things that are going on around you. Driving is a complicated task that requires the full attention of whoever is behind the wheel.

According to recent research published in Human Factors, “Allocating Attention to Detect Motorcycles: The Role of Inattentional Blindness,” there might be a link between the inordinately high number of motorcycle-involved traffic accidents, and “the way the human brain processes- or fails to process- information” (human factors). In an analysis about their research, the researches state that “the objective of this study was to determine whether inattentional blindness (IB) can be used to understand the psychological mechanisms around looked-but-failed-to-see (LBFTS) crashes involving motorcycles” (Human Factors). But researchers find LBFTS crashes in particular very bothersome. Even with perfect driving conditions, and very little distractions, “drivers will look in the direction of the oncoming motorcycle — and in some cases appear to look directly at the motorcycle — but still pull out into its path” (Pammer, Lentern, Sabadas). For this study, 56 adults were recruited by the researchers and tasked with examining a series of photos that depicted common driving situations from the drivers’ perspective, and determine if the image portrayed a safe or unsafe driving environment. The researchers intentionally “manipulated the image to include an unexpected object, either a motorcycle or a taxi, and asked participants if they noticed either” (Pammer, Lentern, Sabadas). The results showed that participants were twice as likely to miss a motorcycle compared to a taxi, allowing researchers to conclude that inattentional blindness constructs a helpful framework for understanding looked-but-failed-to-see (LBFTS) crashes.

Many states have attempted to tackle distracted driving by enhancing and creating new legislation in order to reduce the act and prevent motor accidents. In 17 states,  including D. C, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, hand-held cell phone use is prohibited while driving. This is classified as a primary enforcement law meaning that a police officer is allowed to give a citation to a driver if they are using a hand-held cell phone while driving even if they didn’t violate any other traffic offense. No state bans all cell phone use for drivers, however, 38 states including D.C. ban novice drivers from all cell phone use, and 20 states including D.C. prohibit all cell phone use for school bus drivers. Currently, text messaging is banned for all driver in 47 states including D. C, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Some states have even begun to increase the fine for distracted driving offenses. In 2017 Colorado raised the penalty for texting while driving from $50 to $300. Arkansas updated the states existing texting and driving ban, to include interactive wireless communication and harshened the penalty by increasing the fine which could cost violators up to $250 for a first offense and up to $500 for any succeeding violations (Governors Highway Safety Association).

Along with action from states, the federal government has also made efforts to prevent and discourage distracted driving. Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) modified their $305 billion federal surface transportation bill creating a special distracted driving grant for states that don’t qualify for a stricter grant option. “To qualify, states must enact and enforce a ban on texting and use of all electronic devices for all drivers ages 18 and younger, plus additional requirements”. Four out of 30 state applicants qualified for the grant in FY 2018.” Inadequacies such as lack of a texting ban, no prohibition for teen or novice drivers, and no minimum fine being placed on a texting violation contributed to the low award acceptance rate (kith).

Aiming toward raising awareness, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has dedicated the month of April to highlighting and focusing on the dangerous ramifications of distracted driving. During this month organizations come together all with the same goal to encourage drivers to stay focused on the road and reach their destination safely. Drivers can practice safe driving by turning their phone off, not drink and driving, wearing a seatbelt, and focusing solely on the road while driving (national day calendar).

With the recent manufacturing of tech-savvy cars, car companies have acknowledged the need to implement features that allow drivers to interact with incoming calls or text without actually having to look or touch their phones, enabling a safer driving experience. In an article about how car companies are combating distracted driving, Jenny Che, a business editor at Huffington found that many car companies are making efforts to reduce distracted driving.

“Ford’s SYNC operating system, for example, sends texts dictated by the driver and reads incoming texts aloud; its MyKey feature allows parents to block calls and texts when teens are driving. GM is reportedly developing eye-tracking technology that can detect when drivers glance away at a text. Earlier this year, BMW unveiled plans for gesture controls that will allow drivers to point at the vehicle’s navigation screen to take a call (Che)”.

Car companies have recognized that getting drivers to break the habit of being on their phone is infeasible. Therefore “carmakers are increasingly fitting vehicles with technologies that lie within drivers’ field of vision and don’t take their focus off the road (che)”.

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Not only have car companies taken initiatives to combat distracted driving, but cell phones companies also have. AT&T’s ‘DriveMode’ app is a free downloadable app that is activated when your car reaches 15 mph. It blocks text, calls, and alerts so that you aren’t as tempted to check your phone when behind the wheel. Samsung, Verizon, and Sprint all have similar apps that provide the same services (consumer reports).

Studies have shown that the use of hand-held phones while driving can be a very hazardous distraction. However, the notion that hands-free systems are safer has been opposed by the findings of other studies on distracted driving. David L. Strayer and Frank A. Drews,  researchers and professors at the University of Utah, conducted a study that was published in the 2006 issue of Human Factors that concluded that talking on the phone while driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving, even if the driver is using a hands-free cellphone system. The research explored the effects hands-free-cell-phone conversations had on simulated driving. Strayer and Drews observed that if participants were conversing on a cell-phone, they were less likely to create a solid memory of those objects even when they looked directly at the objects while driving. This pattern remained the same for all objects whether they were important or trivial, indicating that very little acknowledgment and/ or analysis of the objects took place outside of the confined focus of attention. And although passengers can be a distraction while driving, in-vehicle conversations do not nearly interfere with driving in a hazardous way as much as cell-phone conversation do.

“Moreover, in-vehicle conversations do not interfere with driving as much as cell-phone conversations do, because drivers are better able to synchronize the processing demands of driving with in-vehicle conversations than with cell-phone conversations”. Collectively, all this data supports the idea that conversations that involve hand-free cell-phone while driving, is just as hazardous as cell-phone conversations while driving (Strayer, Drews).

Designed to detect if drivers were distracted by cellphones while driving,  New York state has approved a device known as the “Textalyzer”. The tablet-like device police would be able to see if drivers were texting, browsing the internet or emailing by plugging the device into the accused driver’s cell phone (chuck).

However, ‘Textalyzer’ has drawn a lot of concern from the public and legally. Rashida Richardson, legislative council for New York Civil Liberties Union said ‘The first concern is that it gives officers full discretion to decide who to use the Textalyzer against” and “That allows for a lot of bias” (chuck). Others such as privacy advocates stated that it was a violation of privacy as a whole and feel its too intrusive, while others feel that it will barely do any harm and are in full support of it.

“Phone records only give you a small sliver of information. Anything internet-related doesn’t show up on a phone record. Anything social media, taking selfies, Pokemon Go — any of these things that can be a problem won’t show up on a phone record. That’s like giving a Breathalyzer that just detects beer”(Liberman).

After losing his 19- year-old to a distracted driver, Ben Lieberman became an advocate of the Textalyzer. Lieberman feels that would just be able to look into a small piece of information and for a good cause.

Distracted driving is a huge epidemic that claims the lives of and injures thousands of people each year. Although controlling this behavior in drivers is very hard, the only to help prevent accidents at the hands of distracted driving is to educate drivers about the dangers of the action whether it is intentional or not. Through informing drivers and passing legislation, state, and federal-wide hopefully these efforts will help reduce distracted driving.

Works cited

  • Chuck, Elizabeth. “‘Textalyzer’ May Bust Distracted Drivers – but Is It a Privacy Invasion?”, NBCUniversal News Group, 28 July 2017,
  • Detect Motorcycles: The Role of Inattentional Blindness. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
  • “DISTRACTED DRIVING AWARENESS MONTH – April.” National Day Calendar, 20 Nov. 2018,
  • N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May. 2019.
  • Kitch, Ann. “State and Federal Efforts to Reduce Distracted Driving.” National Conference of State Legislatures, June 2018,
  • Mautz, Scott. “Psychology and Neuroscience Blow-Up the Myth of Effective Multitasking.”, Inc., 11 May 2017,
  • Pammer, Kristen & Sabadas, Stephanie & Lentern, Stephanie. (2017). Allocating Attention to N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May. 2019.
  • “Section 405 National Priority Safety Program.” GHSA, Governors Highway Safety Association ,
  • Strayer, David L., and Frank A. Drews. “Cell-Phone–Induced Driver Distraction – David L. Strayer, Frank A. Drews, 2007.” SAGE Journals, 1 June 2007,
  • Team, Spine. “The Science Is Clear: Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work.” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, 20 Dec. 2018,
  • “What You Need to Know About Distracted Driving Awareness Month.” Traffic School Online, 11 Jan. 2017,
  • Zhang, Yu, et al. “The Effects of Visual and Cognitive Distractions on Operational and Tactical Driving Behaviors.” Human Factors, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2014,


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