Thoughts on Distracted Driving

I really dislike driving cars. I know this is usually a blog about flying, but being a pilot has focused my dislike of driving to levels I didn’t know existed. Over on his blog, the NTSB Chairman posted about the problem of “Distracted Driving” and an interesting observation about so-called “hands-free devices.” According to several scientific studies, hands-free devices increase our ability to keep our hands on the wheel but do nothing about the equally (if not more) dangerous aspect of cognitive distraction (“not paying attention”).

For example, a few years ago we investigated an accident where the top of a bus carrying high school students was sheared off because the driver drove under a bridge with inadequate clearance. The driver was involved in a heated conversation with his sister using a hands-free phone. Investigators asked if he noticed the signs before the bridge that indicated that the bridge was too low for his vehicle. He not only missed seeing the signs, but he did not even notice the bridge until after he sheared off the top of the bus, injuring several students!

Driving a vehicle is usually a fairly easy task, except in the worst weather conditions, and we do it so much that it becomes routine, repetitive, almost mindless. I’m sure many of you couldn’t name many specific details about your drive home from work today. But despite this routine, driving a car is a very complex task. It’s never actually that repetitive or routine. Maybe the roads we take are the same, or the time of day you’re driving on them, but you’re probably not sharing those roads with the exact same group of drivers at any one time. The speeding, slowing, honking, doddling, belching mass of humanity on our roads is a variable that requires every bit of our attention to keep our own cars from hitting any of theirs.

What scares me is the number of drivers I see that are blatantly on their phones. I don’t even mean hands-free devices–they’re just driving the car with one hand and holding the phone to their face with the other. This means that the “human variable” of driving is much more dangerous–mindless zombies that aren’t capable of paying attention–and I treat them that way, often giving a nearby car a wide berth if I know the driver is on the phone. In New Jersey, as in many places, it is illegal to operate a handheld phone while driving, so there are other issues to consider, such as increased enforcement. But even without enforcement, we all have to understand that, handheld or hands-free, talking on the phone and driving a car are incompatible activities. It’s like driving in dense fog: your reactions will be delayed and even physical senses like peripheral vision will be impaired because your immediate attention is busy trying to understand and respond to the conversation.

People sometimes ask me if I’m ever scared of flying, and I usually respond that no I am not scared of flying, but I am scared of driving. At least in an airplane the problems are usually my own–both to cause and to deal with–and I can train and study to make better decisions and to fly better in an emergency. But in a car, with all the millions of human variables out there, who knows when one of them will not be paying attention at the wrong time. There’s nothing I can do about that but redouble my own attentiveness and to implore you all to consider setting a personal rule to not talk on the phone while driving.