Which poses a greater threat while driving: a quick phone call or a skipping CD? If you said the phone call, a 2003 study by Virginia Commonwealth University would say you’re wrong. In fact, the university’s distracted driving study, focusing on the driving behaviors of nearly 4,500 drivers and over 2,700 traffic accidents, found that cell phones didn’t even ring in the top five, landing instead at number six. It turns out, according to the study, that it’s more dangerous to rubberneck, to drive while fatigued, to enjoy the scenery, to talk to the passengers or yell at the kids, or to change that skipping CD, adjust the radio or find a new tape for the player.
Even safe-driving groups like the American Automobile Association (AAA) claim that cell phones are getting the shaft when it comes to safety, noting in a company statement that the reason fingers are readily pointed at these seemingly-indispensable communications wonders could be that “[h]andheld cell phones are readily visible to other drivers. When people chance upon a distracted driver and notice a cell phone, they naturally blame the phone.”
Cell phones aren’t fault free, but so often it’s the device itself that shoulders the responsibility when, as the AAA admits, it’s the driver who might really be to blame. Ultimately the phones are just another cause of driver distraction.
Driver distraction is nothing new, having roots that reach back to the turn of the last century and the rhythmic motion of windshield wipers; it was feared that rather than effectively clearing the windshield, the wipers would instead put the driver into a trance. While today windshield wipers are an integral vehicle safety device, ones that state inspections require to be operable, they originally set the pace for other driver distractions to come, like radios and fast-food restaurants.
There’s no hidden secret to driver distraction; the term simply means distractions that cause the driver to stop applying his or her full attention to the most important matter at hand
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2003-08-01.