Phones and children top list of driving distractions

January 08, 2014

Using your phone while driving is tempting, but it can also end your life or someone else's.

Article at a glance

  • According to a US highway safety agency, in 2009 there were 448,000 people injured and 5474 killed in car accidents involving distracted drivers.
  • New research in Germany shows that accidents often take place during times drivers perceive to be low-risk.
  • Driving with small children may significantly increase the risk of accidents.

In January 2015, bystanders watched in horror as a young Gresham, Oregan mother inexplicably drove through a crosswalk, hitting and seriously injuring three teenagers. Police later discovered that when the crash occured, the woman apparently did not even have her hands on the steering wheel; she was using her mobile phone to video her child in the back seat of the car.

But that wasn't all. According to court documents, in the 10 minutes prior to the accident, the driver talked on the phone for about seven minutes, sent five text messages, and recorded the 19 seconds of video which ended only 1.42 seconds before the crash occurred.

This case is a perfect example of distracted driving at its worst, combining two of the primary causes of distraction: phones and children. And it is far from an isolated case - in 2009, there were 448,000 people injured and 5474 killed in car accidents involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In studies undertaken by the Allianz Center for Technology (AZT), in 78% of crashes the person behind the steering wheel had been preoccupied with other activities, and inattention was at least partly responsible.

There are two risky situations frequently underestimated by drivers. One is waiting at red traffic lights, where drivers use their presumed "free time" to light a cigarette, adjust the GPS navigator or make a phone call. However, if the light unexpectedly turns green the driver might accelerate while still finishing the task he just started. “Distraction increases the risk of accidents in precisely those places the driver considers most harmless,” concludes Christoph Lauterwasser, head of AZT. A second underestimated situation is driving with babies and children.

A study from October 2013 by Monash University found that during a 16-minute trip, the average parent takes their eyes off the road for three minutes and 22 seconds. Their most frequent distraction was turning to look at the child in the rear seat or watching the rear-view mirror (76%), engaging in conversation with the child (16%), assisting the child (7%) and playing with it (1%). Thus children turned out to be 12 times more distracting than the mobile phone.

Nevertheless, researchers are particularly concerned with mobile phones. The AZT research revealed that the risk of an accident increases between 2 and 5-fold if the driver uses a phone. And yet, while 60% of drivers consider their use by others as one of the most dangerous sources of distraction, 40% admit that they make calls without a hands-free set.

Apart from taking calls, “Texting while driving is even more dangerous than speaking on the phone, because the eyes, hands and mind are all heavily involved,” says Kubitzki. In the AZT study, “20% of drivers admitted that they sometimes write an SMS or email while driving.”  Based on the results of their study, researchers at AZT make five recommendations:

  1. Reduce the use of electronic devices.
  2. Keep both hands on the wheel and make sure that items likely to be used during a trip are already at hand before starting the engine. 
  3. Keep the mind focused on driving. 
  4. Reduce time pressure behind the steering wheel by planning trips realistically. 
  5. Use driver assistance systems if available, as research shows that technologies such as the emergency braking assistant or the distance warning assistant help to reduce accidents.

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