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
by Peter Piepper