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The 7 Habits of Highly Distracted Drivers

Tips to keep your eyes and attention on the road, where they belong

By: Steve English / 04.10.2011 / Comments | Print | Email

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The 7 Habits of Highly Distracted Drivers

Distracted driving is a serious and growing problem on North American roads. A recent joint study by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that nearly 80 percent of accidents and 65 percent of near-accidents were the result of some form of driver inattention.

Like it or not, your brain simply isn't built to handle more than one task at a time. And when you're behind the wheel, safe and responsible driving should always command your complete attention. Below, we countdown the seven most common offences committed by distracted drivers, plus pointers on how you can avoid committing them yourself. Tip #1: Pull over before reading.

7. Reaching for something
Newton's First Law of Motion says it best: an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Loose items in a moving car are bound to be distracting to a driver, especially if they fall onto the floor. Reaching for a moving object increases your risk of accident by up to nine times.

Before you put the car in drive, safely secure all your personal belongings and avoid the temptation to reach for them while you're moving. The dashboard and passenger seat are not storage spaces for your stuff. If something does come loose, pull over and stop before you grab for it.

This rule goes double when driving with kids. Before you head out, make sure everything your children will need for the trip is easily accessible to them in the back seat. Fumbling for toys or turning around to find something while the vehicle is in motion puts both of you at considerable risk.

6. Grooming
You see them during any morning rush hour: people maximizing their drive-time by applying makeup, combing their hair or even shaving behind the wheel. Maybe it's all those convenient mirrors. This may sound obvious, but limit your personal grooming to the bathroom. If you're running late, wait until you arrive at your destination before attending to that pesky cowlick. Grooming while driving increases your risk of accident by three times, and a crash will likely do worse than muss up your hair.

5. Eating/drinking
Eating and drinking seem like relatively mindless tasks, but they still divert your attention away from the road. An unseen pothole is hazardous enough on its own, never mind with a scalding-hot cup of coffee in your lap. As a rule of thumb, finish eating or drinking before you get in the car. Not only will you be more alert, but your car won't look and smell like a roadside diner.

4. Reading
Some novels are hard to put down, but behind the wheel of a moving car is no place to curl up with a good book. Reading while driving, be it a map or the morning paper, increases the risk of accident by three times. If you're having trouble deciphering handwritten directions, pull over and scrutinize them more closely. And if you really can't wait to find out if Harry triumphs over Voldemort, check to see if your favourite page-turner is available in audiobook format.

3. Using a mobile phone
Love 'em or hate 'em, cell phones are an unavoidable reality of 21st-century life. But the need to be connected to friends, family and the office 24/7 can be more hazardous than it's worth. According to the NHTSA/Virginia Tech study, cell phone use is the single-most common external distraction facing drivers today, with chatty drivers being more than three times as likely to be involved in accidents. Hands-free phones help, but it's important to remember that simply having a conversation-either on the phone or with a passenger-decreases a driver's concentration level.

Currently, all provinces except the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have laws on the books banning drivers from using handheld cell phones and similar devices while driving. Avoid temptation by turning your cell off before your turn the engine on. Let voicemail be your co-pilot.

2. Operating a hand-held device or mobile phone
Hand-held gadgets may make some aspects of our lives easier, but they're sure not helping us drive. Operating iPods and BlackBerrys and dialing cell phones ups the risk of accidents by over three times. Simply put, if it requires you to take a hand off the wheel and/or your eyes off the road, do it later.

1. Drowsiness
Next to impaired driving, drowsy driving is one of the most common and lethal distractions around, resulting in as many as 22 percent of all accidents. With their reflexes slowed and judgment fuzzy, drowsy drivers are four times as likely to be involved in accidents or near-accidents than alert drivers. According to the NHTSA study, young drivers are at the highest risk for drowsy-driving, with shift workers and people with undiagnosed sleep disorders also posing considerable risks.

The best ways to avoid drowsy driving is to ensure you get enough sleep before you take the wheel and to avoid driving between midnight and 6 a.m. If you do start to feel sleepy, stop driving. Immediately. Pull over and rest or let a well-rested passenger take over. A few cups of coffee or a short 15-to-20-minute nap can make a big difference, but they're no substitute for good, solid sleep. If you're tired, you can't drive. Period.

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