The Elements of Distraction

Our lives may be complicated, but safe driving is simple.

Mark Chung
April 12, 2021

We all know distraction behind the wheel is a safety hazard. We see it every day. On a typical day, more than 700 people are injured in distracted driving crashes. During Distracted Driving Awareness Month this April, we aim to make our roadways and people safer by increasing awareness of the dangers of distracted driving. Because the truth is, there’s plenty more we can do to stay focused on the drive.

Cell phone use while driving is the primary culprit for distraction, and for good reason. Phones have become an extension of our being – we crave constant stimulation from every notification. Even when talking hands-free, drivers can miss seeing up to half of what's around them because they are engaged in a cell phone conversation.

The essentials of attentive driving include three basic steps: eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and mind on the driving task. Even hands-free phone use isn’t risk-free, because our brains can only process one task at a time. You may think that you are experienced enough to be able to program a playlist or GPS while driving safely, but experience has nothing to do with it: multitasking is a myth. Just as you can’t read a book and talk on the phone simultaneously, driving and other tasks that require mental focus aren’t compatible. 

We asked some of our NSC roadway program managers to identify other distracted driving risks. How many have you experienced behind the wheel?   

Infotainment Systems

Research at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) has estimated that potentially 36% of crashes occurring in the U.S. annually could be avoided without driver distraction. With pedestrian fatalities at a 30-year high, now more than ever we need to make sure that cars are designed for the safety of all road users and that drivers are ready to take on the responsibility they have when behind the wheel. Yet many cars on the road today come with all sorts of bells and whistles, including touchscreens and infotainment systems. The idea is to give drivers maximum convenience, but operating this tech is anything but simple or safe. Creating a culture of safety on our roads means we need to make safety the top priority in how we design our vehicles and our roads, and how we treat dangerous behaviors like texting behind the wheel. Join the Road to Zero Coalition to learn more about how we can eliminate roadway fatalities.  

Teen Passengers

Car crashes are the leading cause of preventable death for teens, and their inexperience makes every distraction more dangerous. While cell phones are a major risk, passengers are an often-overlooked danger. In fact, having just one friend in the car dramatically increases the risk of a crash. Safe driving takes practice and diligence. This is why most Graduated Driver Licensing provisions limit passengers for new drivers, and why the New Driver Deal includes restrictions on both passengers and distractions. Visit DriveitHOME.org for free resources to help keep teen drivers safe.

Pledge to Drive Distraction-Free

Our lives may be complicated, but safe driving is simple – just drive. Are you doing all you can to keep yourself and your loved ones safe behind the wheel? Take the NSC Just Drive Pledge and commit to driving distraction-free on and off the job. Because until you get to your destination safely, everything else can wait. Visit nsc.org/JustDrive for free distracted driving resources. 

Mark Chung

Mark Chung is vice president of the roadway practice area at the National Safety Council.

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