Living

Fatal distraction

Paying more attention could save your life

Unless you make a living fighting fires, driving is likely the most dangerous activity you regularly engage in. Nearly 3,000 Canadians are killed in auto collisions every year. The Canada Safety Council estimates that driver distraction contributes to between 20 and 30 per cent of all collisions.

Don’t heap all the blame on cellphones—there are many more low-tech distractions that are just as hazardous. A May 2001 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that drivers were much more likely to be distracted by things outside the vehicle, radio/CD adjustments and other occupants. Most of the time, these minor distractions are just that: minor. But combine a distraction with something unexpected—a child darting into the road, a car stopping suddenly in front of you—and suddenly, it’s life-threatening. “You can make stupid mistakes for a long time before there’s a consequence,” says Stephanie Faul of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “But it only takes that one time.” Here are some tips to help keep your attention on the road:

Eliminating distractions starts while you’re still parked in your driveway. Leave yourself plenty of time to reach your destination and know exactly where you’re going. That way your eyes will be on the road, not on the clock or hunting for unfamiliar street names.

Make sure there are no loose objects on your dashboard or seats. Items such as notepads or briefcases could distract you or even inflict serious injuries in a crash. Have a snack and apply any makeup before you leave home. Children should always be in seat-belts or car seats. To keep kids from fidgeting, provide them with safe play items. Pets should be in safely secured cages or restrained with seat-belts. (Pet stores sell special seat restraints that will protect Fido from harm in a crash.)

Finally, check your seat and mirrors and pick your radio station or CD before you pull away. If you’re in an unfamiliar vehicle, take a few minutes to locate all the controls. You don’t want to be scrambling to find the windshield wipers if a downpour hits on the highway.

Once you get going, remember that safety takes precedence over socializing. “All conversations while driving, either with a passenger or with someone on the phone, divert driver concentration and attention away from the road,” says Carey-Ann Greenham, a spokeswoman for CAA Central Ontario. If you must chat, avoid making eye contact or tackling emotionally charged issues. The CAA recommends that motorists avoid using cellphones while a vehicle is in motion. If you have no alternative, Transport Canada recommends that you use only a speakerphone or hands-free phone. Make sure it’s accessible before your trip begins. But beware: hands-free is not risk-free. According to Transport Canada, drivers are at an increased risk of collision even when using a hands-free phone.

“Although there are lots of other factors, driving is primarily a visual task,” notes Jeff Greenberg, a technical specialist with the Ford Research Laboratory in Dearborn, Mich. Because so much is riding on vision, motorists should be aware of what’s called the moth effect, which can subconsciously cause drivers to steer toward objects that catch their eye, the way a moth is drawn to bright light. “There’s an infinite number of things outside the vehicle that can distract you, from the Goodyear blimp to your high-school sweetheart,” says Faul. Don’t rubberneck accident scenes or construction sites where other drivers may create a hazard by letting their cars, and attention, drift. And avoid window shopping or checking out the latest fashions on passing pedestrians. Setting your sights on eliminating distractions could be a life-saving move.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is a consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.