DES PLAINES, Ill. - As an incentive for paying attention while driving, consider this: at 55 miles per hour, you travel the length of a football field while taking your eyes off the road for less than four seconds.
And a just-released study using magnetic resonance images of brain activity indicates people performing two demanding tasks simultaneously, such as driving and conversing, use a smaller portion of the brain on each function than they would if each were done alone. The study, published in the August 1 issue of the journal NeuroImage, did not deal directly with driving and talking but it involved tasks that engage similar brain regions. The study was led by Dr. Marcel Just, a psychology professor and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Plans are under way for a similar study using driving simulators while someone is talking to the "driver."
"Dr. Just's study underscores an aspect of cellular phones that often is overlooked in current debates, that is the conversation itself," said David Golden, National Association of Independent Insurers (NAII) director of commercial lines. "Although holding a phone - or anything else - in your hand may interfere somewhat with your driving, a bigger problem may be the conversation, especially if it gets involved or emotional. Whenever you get engrossed in a conversation, you pay less attention to what is going on around you. In a car, that can be very serious - even fatal."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that driver distraction of all types contributes to 20 to 30 percent of all serious traffic accidents.
"All drivers have a responsibility to exercise good judgment in all of their driving activities," Golden said. "The lead role in improving motorist awareness and driving skills should be borne by driver licensing officials and vehicle safety authorities, including state motor vehicle departments and the U.S. Department of Transportation. But the person behind the wheel must make a concerted effort to always be alert as to conditions and activity on the roadway."
Golden noted that a variety of distractions can compete for a driver's attention - from cell phones and intense conversations with passengers in the vehicle to eating, personal grooming and looking at maps and newspapers. He suggested that drivers make a conscious effort to minimize those distractions, and preferably to engage in them only when the vehicle is stopped.
"Distractions are only going to increase as car manufacturers install more information and entertainment equipment in vehicles," Golden said. "While those devices are helpful, they should be used only when the vehicle is stopped, or located where the driver can't see them." Among distracting devices that already are being installed in cars, or soon will be, are those providing Internet and e-mail access, voice mail, electronic maps and navigational systems, hi-fi digital stereo, compact disc player, DVD player, VCR and compact television screens.
A recent survey by one NAII member company found that 69 percent of people eat while driving, 12 percent apply makeup or shave and seven percent read a newspaper or book. A 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of an accident and was almost as dangerous as drunken driving.
"The role that cell phones may play in traffic accidents is uncertain, in part because few people would admit to using a phone when they have an accident," Golden said. "States are only now beginning to add a provision in their accident report forms so police can indicate whether a phone was being used - again, if the driver would admit it or someone witnessed it."
The abundance of cell phones is growing rapidly. A NHTSA survey completed in January 2001 found that 54 percent of motor vehicle drivers in the United States usually have a cell phone in their vehicles or carry one while driving. Almost 80 percent of those drivers leave the phones on while driving and 73 percent report having talked on the phones while driving.
New York became the first state this year to ban the use of hand-held phones while driving. Several communities had done the same earlier. None of those measures prohibit hands-free phones.
Golden offered several suggestions to minimize driver distractions:
NAII, based in suburban Chicago, is the nation's leading property/casualty trade association with more than 690 member companies writing more than $98 billion in annual premium. NAII members write more than 33 percent of the property/casualty insurance in the United States.