Driven to Distraction

In the 90s, paying attention behind the wheel is taking a back seat.

If you do any commuting at all, you've seen them in action: the guy reading the newspaper while driving his car at 60 miles an hour on the freeway or the woman applying her eye makeup while trying to pilot her sport-utility around town. Sure, multi-tasking isn't just the craze these days; it's a necessity as we're confronted with more to do and less time to do it in, but I'm one of the old school who feels that drivers should actually pay attention to driving. After all, each of us who drives is in command (one hopes) of a missile weighing a ton and a half, a missile capable of producing a great deal of death and destruction if used improperly. I'm afraid many of us are so comfortable with driving that we forget this fact.

But there is no denying that a lot of people are doing a whole lot of things while at the wheels of their vehicles. And this hasn't escaped the notice of some people who have more than a passing interest in keeping those of us who drive cars from careening into each other on a semi-regular basis, namely Farmers Insurance Group. Those fine folks recently commissioned a national survey to determine what other activities drivers participate in while they're commuting. And the results would be funny if they weren't so frightening.

For example, 5.5% of men and 2.1% of women admit to shaving while commuting. Frankly, one might think with electric shavers so prevalent these days the figure might be higher for men, but more than 2% of women shave on their way to work? That must take some dexterity.

Apparently cross-gender fair play is alive and well behind the wheel, too. According to the survey, 18% of women apply make-up in the car, a figure that isn't too surprising, but what might be surprising is that 1.3% of men also admitted to applying make-up in the car. Also in the name of vanity, 8% of men and women style their hair on the way to and from work.

These mundane side activities might not seem life-threatening, but there is a substantial human cost.

"Busy lifestyles have resulted in drivers making the most of their idle time in the car," says Diane Tasaka, director of corporate communications for Farmers. "The problem is that these distractions make the driver inattentive and greatly increase the chance of a collision."

Tasaka is not just talking through her industry-colored hat either. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), inattentive driving resulted in 3,960 fatal crashes in 1997 (the most recent statistics available) and even more fatalities (4,474). NHTSA ranks inattentive driving as the fourth highest contributing factor relating to fatal crashes.

Nearly 35% of Americans drive less than 15 minutes to work each day, yet drivers across the country are squeezing plenty into their daily commutes. In addition to applying make-up and shaving, Americans are performing a wide variety of tasks while, at the same time, attempting to control their automobile.

The survey shows that one out of every ten people on the road admit to reading newspapers or books while driving, while 5.6% admit to changing their clothes. Boredom might account for the high figure for reading, but one can only speculate why people feel the need to alter their wearing apparel while at the wheel.

Closet musicians seem to abound in the United States. The survey found that 21.7% of the American driving population drums on its dashboard or steering wheel. That, of course, could be very disturbing to the 30.6% who talk on their cellular phones while driving.

Many drivers attempt to use their commutes for self-improvement or family togetherness. Nearly 56% of the population use drive time as a brainstorming session or for mental organization, i.e. they think while they're driving. I'm not sure what the other 44% are doing upstairs as they motor along. Nearly one third of drivers (32.7%) meditate, and 15% find their commutes to be quality, non-interrupted time with their children. Some 16% take advantage of the extra time to listen to books on tape.

Interestingly, the lower the driver's income, the more likely they are to read newspapers and books on the road. Nearly 22% (21.7%) of drivers with household incomes less than $25,000 admit to reading the newspaper and books, while only 5.2% of drivers with household incomes over $100,000 read while driving.

On the other side of the coin, the more money drivers make, the more likely they are to listen to books on tape. Over 21% of drivers with incomes over $100,000 listen to audio books, while only 10.8% of drivers with incomes less than $25,000 listen to them. In essence, the more affluent drivers can afford to have someone read to them, while the less affluent need to read to themselves.

People with money also are enthusiastic about playing along to music. Some 29.2% of drivers with $100,000-plus incomes are dashboard bangers, keeping the beat by playing imaginary drums on their dashboards and steering wheels. Only 19% of those with incomes less than $25,000 admit to dashboard drumming. Perhaps they prefer air-guitar.

Despite all of the self-imposed distractions, the American driving public gives itself high grades. A little over 48% of the driving population see themselves as excellent drivers and 41.4% claim to be good drivers. The older the driver, the more confident he or she is. More than 40% of 18-34 year olds rank themselves as excellent drivers, while 64% of people 65 years and older say they are excellent drivers. Only 1% of the population admits to being poor drivers. (And one could guess they're really lousy.)

Farmers' national survey was conducted with a sample of 1,000 consumers nationwide and has a margin of error +/- 5%.

While we all have a lot to do these days, except perhaps for those reading this on-line in stir, safety experts agree it pays to remain focused on driving and traffic conditions at all times. Though your parents might not have told you this, it is good policy to prepare for your day (shaving, make-up, hair, going to the bathroom, etc.) prior to leaving for work. Driving is too vital an activity to be confused with other pastimes. As James Dean once said, "The life you save may be mine."

Peter Piepper is a freelance writer who frequently examines safety issues

What Every Parent Should Know About Auto Safety

To most of us, our children are the most precious things in the world. In this age of high speed, high pressure and high tech, our families provide a welcome respite -- an escape to simpler times when the world was home-centered, not business-centered. Like a mother bear protecting her cubs, we have become fanatic about sheltering our children from harm. And, for all the benefits motor vehicles have brought us in terms of mobility and freedom, they have also exacted a price with respect to our children.

Though no one can minimize the beneficial effects automobiles have had on our society, they do represent a significant public health risk. In fact, the single largest cause of death among children 5-12 years old and teenagers aged 15-20 is motor vehicle accidents.

The danger to our children is two-fold. First, significant numbers of children under 12 are killed or injured in vehicle collisions, very frequently because they were not properly restrained in child-safety seats and/or safety belts by their parents. And second, when our children become old enough to drive vehicles themselves, they sometimes end up doing a very poor job of it and kill themselves and others.

According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, an insurance industry lobbying and research group, children 12 years and younger represented 20 percent of the U.S. population in 1997 and five percent of motor vehicle deaths. While those statistics are mildly reassuring, one has to note that not one of those victims was driving the vehicle. Instead, they were all innocent victims.

Further, the story for teenagers is even scarier. Again according to IIHS, teenagers accounted for 10 percent of the U.S. population in 1997 and 15 percent of motor vehicle deaths. The statistics are grim: in 1997, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, teenagers represented 12 percent of passenger vehicle occupant deaths in 1997, seven percent of pedestrian deaths, seven percent of motorcycle deaths, and 18 percent of bicycle deaths.

The raw numbers are sobering. Some 2,098 children under the age of 13 and 5,697 teenagers died in motor vehicle crashes in 1997.

While there is positive news -- child pedestrian and bicycle deaths have declined 67 percent since 1975 - the sad fact is that passenger vehicle occupant deaths among children were only four percent lower in 1997 than in 1975. This despite the fact that experts agree today's cars and trucks are significantly safer than those of 25 years ago. Despite declines in some of the death rates, motor vehicle crashes still cause about one of every three injury deaths among children 12 and younger.

For teenagers the risks are different, but the statistical picture isn't pretty either. Teenagers drive less than all but the oldest people, but their numbers of crashes and crash deaths are disproportionately high. In fact, the risk of crash involvement per mile driven among drivers 16-19 years old is four times the risk among older drivers.

What to Do

Because there are two separate problems in the child safety issue, there are two separate solutions as well. In neither case does the fault lie with today's vehicles. Instead, the solutions must come from changes in driver and passenger behavior.

For children under the age of 13, the solution is very clear - the percentage of children who currently are properly restrained in proper child-safety seats most go up from its current 60 percent to 100 percent. In addition, children too old and/or too large to ride in child safety seats must wear their seat belts correctly and sit in the rear seat. Amazingly, sitting in the rear instead of the front reduces fatal injury risk among children 12 and younger by 36 percent. (A future feature in Driving Today will discuss exactly how children should be properly restrained.)

As to preventing vehicle deaths among teenagers, the solution revolves around drivers' education. The IIHS believes teenage crash rates are high "largely because of young drivers' immaturity combined with driving inexperience." It is difficult to legislate away immaturity, but a true driver's training program that will school youth in the proper ways to use the significant active and passive safety systems of today's automobiles will go a long way toward making the roads safer for our teenagers. All too often drivers' education has been eliminated from the high school classroom. And in those schools where the course is still offered, it is rarely more than a glorified lesson in street sign memorization and parallel parking. Teaching car control is extremely rare. Yet crashes involving young drivers typically are single-vehicle crashes, primarily run-off-the-road crashes, that involve driver error and/or speeding. These are exactly the types of accidents that can be prevented by drivers skilled in keeping their cars under control.

Our children - whether they are babes in arms or teenagers off at college - are our most precious resource, our guarantee of the future. Certainly they deserve our help in reaching adulthood. Did you make sure your kid was properly buckled in today?