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Is your mobile putting you at risk when out on the road?

Is your mobile putting you at risk when out on the road?

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Ever find yourself behind the wheel but not fully focused on the traffic around you? Or notice someone else on the road that’s not paying attention to a critical situation? It can feel pretty alarming. There are a number of reasons why we might get distracted or lose focus out on the road. Mobile phones are the biggest threat of all.

So, what can you do about it? First off, we should consider why distraction happens. There are a few different factors that lead us to lose focus. One major reason is inattention – this can be caused from being too tired, or from being bored and letting your mind wander. Another type of danger is paying attention to the wrong thing – such as fully focusing on the car in front of you and missing a cyclist approaching from the side. Or, it could be due to a distraction, such as eating while driving or typing an address into your navigation system while on the road.

Several sources of distraction

These days, the source of the distraction is most likely to be a mobile phone. Mobile phones are a bigger threat our attention than most people realise. Especially when out on the road where mobile phone usage could distract drivers in several ways:

  • Physical distraction: can occur when the driver has to use one or both hands to use their mobile to dial a number, answer or end a call.
  • Visual distraction: is caused by the amount of time that the drivers’ eyes are on the mobile phone and off the road or, while talking over the phone, looking at the road but failing to see.
  • Auditory distraction: can occur when the driver is distracted when the phone rings, when they receive text notification or by the conversation itself over the phone.
  • Cognitive distraction: occurs when two mental tasks are performed at the same time. For instance when the conversation one is having over the phone starts competing with the task of driving. Research shows that listening, alone, can reduce activity in the part of the brain associated with driving by more than a third. The more difficult and complex the conversation, the stronger its effects on driving performance. The more difficult the driving situation, the more impact the telephone conversation will have on driving ability.

Research from the U.S Department of Transportation shows that sending or reading a short text message takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. That’s enough for a truck travelling at 80 km an hour to travel 110 meters – or like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.

The evidence is quite clear on the direct correlation between mobile phone usage and accidents with a Norwegian study based on insurance records concluding that the use of a mobile telephone during driving increases the likelihood of being involved in a crash by about 1,7 times! The statistics are even worse for texting.

But it can be hard to resist the dopamine kick you get from a checking a Facebook notification or a text message. And the more a driver uses their phone without incident, the more likely they might be lulled into a false sense of security. I’ve even seen drivers go so far as Facetiming in moving traffic!                             

Even though there is nothing we can do to eliminate inattention and distraction altogether, there are plenty of steps we can take to reduce it. Simple steps such as making sure you get a good night’s sleep ahead of a long day on the road, taking frequent stops and keeping your mind active during a dull section of a highway, for example, by listening to music or a  good podcast.

Technology to the rescue?

With the introduction of driver assist features like emergency braking and lane-keeping assist, I sometimes get questions about whether those might help make up for a couple seconds of distraction.  And here the answer is a definite no. While these features offer a lot in terms of safety and comfort, advanced safety systems do not make your truck accident-proof! In fact if drivers are under a false impression about their safety when certain safety features are activated, they could relinquish their responsibilities with fatal consequences.

Studies have shown that regular users of advanced driver assistance systems are almost twice as likely to drive distractedly compared to those who don’t use them. As a safety expert I find this extremely alarming as there is no safety feature out there today that can replace a good and focused driver!

It’s unrealistic to expect that we can totally eliminate the use of mobile phones out on the road although most countries in the EU, US and Australia have laws in place to ban hand-held devices. But with so much at stake—lives for one but also financial losses—it’s worthwhile to take a few important steps when on the road. Here is a look at some of them.

Before the journey: 

  • Enter your destination in the navigation system before heading off. Entering an address when you are already out on the road can often takes longer than you think and can be quite fidgety.
  • Queue albums, podcasts or start audiobooks before setting off. Listening to podcasts music or audiobooks is a great way to keep yourself entertained (and stop you from you from reaching for your phone) Setting up some good things to listen to ahead of setting off, saves you from having to scroll through options.
  • Put your phone in driver mode to stops unnecessary notifications. When putting your phone in driver mode, major functions like texting are switched off and only basic functions work. If your phone doesn’t have this functionality then are plenty of apps that can be downloaded which do the same thing.
  • Connect to hands free. Using a hands-free system that is accessible from the steering is much safer than trying to fumble for your phone when someone calls. Every time you look away from the road, you run a big risk of an accident. While using hands-free is a safer option remember that talking on the phone is still a major cause of auditory distraction.
  • Plan journeys so they include rest stops when messages can be checked and calls returned.

During the journey:

  • Use your voice instead of your hands. Using voice recognition software to give commands or sending voice messages instead of text messages can swiping and typing on your phone and/or texting.
  • Do you have a co-driver? Make use of their help to add addresses or keep an extra eye on the road.
  • If you do need to use your phone for some reason? Pick your moments. Glancing briefly while waiting for a red light to turn is much less risky than while on the road.
  • Don’t rely on features to keep you safe. Advanced driver support systems can help in critical situations but they are no substitute for a focused driver.
  • Even if you aren’t using a phone, someone else might be. Distracted drivers are not going away. The best way to keep yourself and others safe in the road is to drive defensively, with ample room to brake.
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