Beware all manner of distractions behind the wheel

Though texting may get the most attention, any kind of distractions behind the wheel can cause car accidents and injuries or deaths.

A recent study conducted by transportation experts at Oregon State University has shed surprising light on the brazen overconfidence that many teenagers have in their driving abilities. Nearly 30 percent of teens surveyed by researchers report that they regularly perform such diverse activities as reading, changing clothes and doing homework instead of keeping their attention primarily focused on driving. Sadly, this is in addition to the almost 40 percent who report regularly texting while driving. Extrapolating the data means that, at any given time, as many as 70 percent of teens behind the wheel could be splitting their focus between driving and any number of other activities.

The results of the study, though startling, weren't necessarily bleak. Study participants who underwent a short, one-time, driver education course which highlighted the dangers of distracted driving were able to better recognize the risks of not giving their full attention to the road ahead. Hopefully, being able to understand the hazards will translate into making better choices in the future when it comes to their driving behaviors.

The study comes as New Jersey and many other states around the country are in the midst of "Distracted Driving Awareness Month," during which local law enforcement, government agencies, telecommunications companies and others are focused on both public education about the dangers involved in multitasking behind the wheel and cracking down on offenders who continue to drive distracted.

Texting in particular is inherently dangerous

Distracted drivers have been blamed for over 1,600 deaths in the Garden State in the past decade. Tragically, the wave of distracted driving-related accidents shows no sign of slowing, leading the state's acting attorney general, John Hoffman, to caution the public that the problem may get worse before it gets better. Hoffman says that "while crashes and fatalities are trending downward as a whole, the number and proportion of distracted driving crashes are rising."

One of the key causes of distraction behind the wheel is texting. Texting continues to get much of the blame for the distracted driving "phenomena" that has swept both the state of New Jersey and the entire nation, and for good reason. This is not just because of the glut of wireless devices available in our society, but because of the very nature of the brain function required to send or read a text message. Texting is unique in that, unlike some other "mindless" distractions like eating or drinking (which don't require much independent thought behind the physical action), it involves three distinct levels of distraction:

  • Visual - texting requires us to pull our eyes away from the road ahead in order to look at the screen or keyboard
  • Cognitive - texting eats up much-needed brain power by forcing us to process incoming messages and compose coherent replies, all while our minds are busy trying to deal with driving
  • Manual - texting requires us to take our hands off the wheel in order to operate the keyboard and enter characters

Texting is, in many ways, the "perfect storm" of distracting behavior, and previous research has shown that the dangers of texting aren't mitigated by using hands-free or talk-to-text devices. As long as texting and other multi-tasking (something the human body is surprisingly ill-equipped to handle) persists among New Jersey drivers of all ages, accidents will continue to happen as a result. If you or someone you love has been injured in a distracted driving-related accident, you have legal rights. Speak with an attorney at the Burlington law firm of Smith Magram Michaud and Colonna, P.C. for more information.

Keywords: texting, distracted driving, driving while distracted, cellphone