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10 Most Dangerous Distracted Driving Habits

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It’s probably safe to reason the 18-year-old man didn’t leave the house with intentions to kill someone that day. As he went about his business, he casually held his car’s steering wheel in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He certainly hadn’t planned on running that red light. That was when a semi-tractor trailer swerved to avoid clobbering his car. Instead of hitting the negligent driver, the rig plowed directly into the vehicle carrying Jacy Good and her parents, Jean and Jay Good. The trio was returning from Jacy’s 2008 graduation from Muhlenberg College near Allentown, Pa.

Jacy’s parents were killed instantly. She was critically injured and endured agonizing rehabilitation sessions to regain her speech and her ability to do just the simplest of tasks. The Goods’ story is just one of thousands each year of the pain inflicted by distracted driving.

It’s no wonder that “distracted driving” has been called “the new drunk driving” [source: The Economist].

Distractions inside our vehicles abound. For many professionals, their car, truck or SUV is truly their office on wheels. For younger drivers, the car continues to serve as a social hub as it has for decades. But now vehicles are not just a mobile party; they’ve also become a spot to place calls and send texts — all too often with deadly consequences.

Every day, distracted driving kills more than 15 people and injures more than 1,200 [source: Centers for Disease Control].

The purpose of this article isn’t to scold busy drivers or hasten the dawn of a vehicular nanny state. Instead, it simply lays out some of the most dangerous habits that distract drivers — habits that you might not even guess to be all that risky. As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.

So start arming yourself for safer driving by reading the No. 10 habit on our list of Most Dangerous Distracted Driving Habits, on the next page.

10: Eating and Drinking

Compared to some of the other distracted driving habits on our list, this one might seem relatively tame. After all, it doesn’t demand all that much cognitive horsepower to stuff your gullet while on the move.

But before you get too enamored of underway refueling, consider some of the things that could go wrong:

  • You could spill scalding coffee on your lap
  • That breakfast sausage muffin or deluxe burger could collapse in your hands, sending crumbs, sauce and patty pieces all over your work outfit
  • Greasy hands or one-handed driving means less control of the steering wheel and shifter

In each of these cases, drivers face a potential domino effect where impaired attention plus an unexpected event lead to loss of control.

Solution: Eat before or after you get behind the wheel; to chow down during your drive places you and others at risk.

Next up, could vanity cause an automotive calamity?

Driving Distractions

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identifies three distinct types of driving distraction:

  • Visual — not watching where you’re going
  • Manual — taking your hand or hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive — allowing your mind to drift from the task of driving


9: Applying Makeup or Grooming

We treat it almost as a joke: the harried office worker who slogs through morning rush hour while painting her face; the road warrior who uses drive time as shaving time.

There’s even a conveniently placed “vanity mirror” in the fold-down visor right above the windscreen to facilitate this morning ritual. As usual, the blamed culprit is shortage of time. With our schedules more compressed than ever, the car or SUV might seem like the perfect place to take care of less mentally taxing tasks such as personal grooming.

But there’s little arguing with the science on distracted driving. All but a small percentage (between 2 and 3 percent) of the population experience a noticeable decline in performance when they try to do two or more things at once [source: Watson and Strayer].

You may have gotten away with eyebrow plucking on the interstate up until now, but just remember that it’s always a gamble.

Continue on to find out how our furry little companions compound our risk on the road.

8: Tending to Fido or Kitty

Clawing their way in at No. 8, as you may have guessed, are pets. Next to kids, or perhaps in lieu of kids, pets are the collective apples of our eye. Circumstances dictate that sometimes we want to, or have to, transport them. The reason could be a veterinarian visit, a move to a different home or maybe just a trip to the park or beach outside of walking distance.

In any case, the last thing you need is an animal roaming around inside your vehicle while you drive. For the same reasons you wouldn’t want people shuffling around the cramped passenger compartment, pets should be secured. It’s safer for them, you and others outside your vehicle.

Fortunately, there are carriers for cats and other small pets. For larger dogs, you can try vehicle partitions or even doggy harnesses that strap your canine securely into a seat. That way he can enjoy the wind in his face without getting fur and slobber in yours.

The proper securing device, coupled with your reassuring words and caresses, should make riding in the car a tolerable and perhaps downright enjoyable experience for your pet. And unlike our next subject, pets don’t require expensive video games or other electronics to remain settled. Continue to the next page to confirm what you already knew our next distraction would be.

7: Keeping an Eye on the Kids

The little bundles of joy can be anything but if they don’t have distractions of their own to while away time in the car. Whether it’s two or more young ones squabbling or a lone infant protesting to be released from a restrictive child safety seat, you do not want to divert your attention from the road to indulge them.

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, passengers are ranked by drivers as among the most frequent causes of distraction. Young children are four times as distracting as adults, while infants can be a whopping eight times more distracting, the AAA Foundation reports. Think carefully, though, about stealing a few seconds’ glance to investigate while at cruising speed.

It takes only a fraction of a second for a road-borne hazard to enter your vehicle’s collision zone and precipitate a disaster.

For the sake of everyone involved, if the little ones’ screaming is about to force you to turn around and go back there — pull over first.

6: Driving While Drowsy

It was a late night. Maybe you figured, “I didn’t drink any alcohol, I’ll be fine.” But not long after getting behind the wheel, it felt as if your eyelids were anchored with five-pound weights. No matter how loudly you blasted the stereo or how many windows you rolled down, Mr. Sandman relentlessly seduced you to join him.

If that’s ever happened to you and you’re still here to read this, you’re lucky. You’re also not alone. Nearly 41 percent of drivers say they’ve fallen asleep behind the wheel at some point or another, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The NHTSA estimates drowsy driving in the United States causes 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths [source: NHTSA].

Of course, it’s not always convenient or safe to pull over and catch a few winks. Perhaps you don’t think you need or can afford a night at a hotel or motel. But considering the alternative — death — it seems reasonable to consider it a non-discretionary purchase.

We go from mental shutdown to sensory overload with our next distraction. Continue to the next page to see why some people can’t seem to keep their eyes on the road.

5: Fiddling with Entertainment and Onboard Electronics

Just because manufacturers and aftermarket companies make high-tech gadgets you can play with while driving doesn’t mean you should.

Wisely, in-car DVD players are set by the factory to only play in view of the driver when the vehicle is parked. While that setting doesn’t stop determined mobile multitaskers, at least it sends the message: The people who made these things think it’s a bad idea to watch DVDs and drive at the same time.

Regular and satellite radios, iPod adaptors and navigation systems can all be deadly digital devices, in the wrong hands. To prevent your love affair with gadgets from becoming a fatal attraction, pull over if a gizmo requires you to focus on a screen and remove your eyes from the road. There’s nothing wrong with In-Car Entertainment (ICE) in and of itself. But drivers need to know when to draw the line so that they don’t wind up on a cold slab.

Many of us confess to taking a certain amount of guilty pleasure in rubbernecking. But can overindulging lead to a broken neck or worse? Continue on to find out.

4: Watching Roadside Diversions

Billboards are now animated and practically dare you to try not looking at them. Elsewhere, the hazard might be roadside bombshells — like if you happen to be cruising through South Beach.

We humans are hardwired to notice the extraordinary. In our earliest days, the unusual could have represented an animal that wanted us for lunch or even a potential mate from another tribe who could diversify the genes of our offspring. One big difference between now and then was that we didn’t have the ability to hurtle ourselves across the landscape faster than even a cheetah.

At 55 miles per hour (88.5 kilometers per hour), a car can cover half the length of a football field in about 4 seconds. So while your attention is focused on that toned hardbody strutting along the sidewalk, there’s plenty of time for a cell phone-occupied driver to cut in front of you without looking.

While, arguably, our ancient hardwiring makes women better-suited to vehicular multitasking in the modern era, it’s dangerous to divide your attention (hence your reaction time) among multiple activities behind the wheel, no matter what your gender.

One of the best — or perhaps worst — examples of this is our next distracted driving habit. It’s guaranteed to push your buttons, so click to the next page to find out more.

3: Texting and Updating Social Media

OMG — were you actually surprised by this one? Here’s a stat that’s nothing to LOL about — you’re 23 times more likely to crash if you text while driving [source:].

Prior to the 2000s, this distraction would not have even made the list. But with proliferating technology and social media platforms, it’s become one of the worst collective weapons of mass distraction with which we have to contend.

It takes about five seconds of attention to a screen and keyboard to send a brief text. Disturbingly, 77 percent of young adult drivers say they can safely drive while texting [source:].

In actuality, distracted driving accidents, including those caused by the use of handheld devices, collectively form the No. 1 killer of teens, according to the NHTSA and others.

While it’s convenient to blame our problems on technology, sometimes it’s quite apparent that the issue really lies with us. To see how having a head in the clouds might put a person underground, go on to the next page.

2: Daydreaming

Driving can be an opportune time to organize your thoughts, clear your mind, think through problems or just enjoy a few moments of solitude.

With experience, routine driving becomes an automatic activity in and of itself. Like brushing our teeth, we don’t really have to think about the intricately coordinated choreography of our senses and muscles while driving.

So we might think we have plenty of processing power left over to focus on non-driving related tasks. And that can be dangerous, if we overestimate our powers of focus.

If you’ve ever let your mind wander and missed your exit on the highway — then considered swerving across several lanes to catch it — you’re probably aware of the risk posed by daydreaming.

The fact is driving a car equates to operating heavy machinery. Just as you wouldn’t expect a crane operator to drift off while hoisting tons of metal beams overhead, responsible driving means maintaining focus. Not only is it a courtesy to your fellow drivers, but it helps you to spot and avoid crazies on the road!

So what’s our No. 1 driving distraction? This one has really stirred passions, on both sides of the distracted driving debate. Continue to the next page to see what all the talk is about.

1: Talking on the Phone

Ringing in at the top spot on our list: talking on the phone. This dubious honor goes to the granddaddy of distracted driving, the now-ubiquitous cell phone. Ever since Wall Street titans and wannabe titans wielded the gigantic brick phones of the 1980s, our obsession with mobile communication has gotten us in trouble behind the wheel.

Driving under the influence of a cell phone, be it handheld or hands-free, impairs driver reaction to the same level as being at the legal limit for blood alcohol content of .08 [source:].

Hands-free headsets appear to reduce the risk somewhat — instead of both cognitive and manual impairment as you have with a handheld device, hands-free units only tie up your mental capabilities; in some jurisdictions, they’re mandatory for people who talk on the phone while they drive.

Studies suggest that talking on a cell phone roughly quadruples a person’s risk of being involved in a crash [source: AAA Foundation].

How could something that seems so innocuous be so deadly? Once again, it lies in the brain’s ability to truly do only one thing at a time. We’ve become such masters at task switching that we create the illusion of successfully doing two or more things simultaneously. But throw a surprise into the mix, like a child darting into traffic or a slamming of the brakes by the car in front of us, and the brain can quickly fail to keep pace.

So there you have it — 10 of the most dangerously distracting habits you can engage in while driving. While you might have a greater awareness of the risks now, just remember that many people don’t. So be safe out there.

Content written by Akweli Parker and created in partnership with