If you own or lease a vehicle, I want you to take a moment to think about the last time you drove your car. Maybe it was just a few hours ago. You probably took a few moments during the drive to change the station on your stereo, adjust the temperature, or maybe to look at your navigation device. Each one of those small, everyday driving habits was a distracted driving moment during which you were significantly more at risk of being involved in an automobile accident. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system—anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.” So anytime you are doing any of these activities, you become a distracted driver.
Let’s be honest, though – most of us do these all the time while we’re driving, and we’re usually pretty safe, right? Here is the problem – it kills people on the road every day. The NHTSA estimates that 3,450 people died in 2016 alone due to distracted driving, and 391,000 people were injured due to crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015.
As you can imagine, texting while driving is one of the most dangerous and alarming distractions. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for an average of five seconds. Here is a rather terrifying fact: At 55 miles per hour, five seconds is the equivalent of driving an entire football field with your eyes closed. We would never even dream of driving that far without seeing where we are going, yet that is exactly what a person does when s/he reads a text at that speed. Despite increased attention to this topic and new driving laws, the risk of distracted drivers out on the road is still significant, with over half a million drivers in the U.S. actively using their mobile phones while driving on a typical day.
So, anytime you are out on the roads, there is potential risk from other drivers who are distracted. And obviously if you are using a mobile device or engaging in non-driving activities, you are greatly increasing your risk of an accident. But there are other risk factors that can place you at even greater risk that you probably don’t ever think about – such as your own mental hard-wiring. Your unique psychological make-up will also influence your driver safety behaviors. We know from psychological research that everyone has a unique profile made up of different traits and abilities which highly relate to risk behaviors and injury likelihood.
The Awareness Factor
One of the most important safety traits for driving is the Awareness factor. Awareness deals with how much you see and remember in your immediate surroundings. All things being equal, people with naturally higher levels of Awareness tend to see more details, notice changes faster, can stay focused for longer periods of time, particularly when doing more than one thing at a time. This is primarily a mental ability that is difficult to change over time, and it’s the reason why those higher in Awareness statistically have fewer injuries compared to others. While you can certainly learn to be more alert and observant through habits and experience, this will always come easier to some people than others.
In the context of distracted driving, this factor becomes highly relevant because it has a strong influencing effect. In other words, it can help or hinder your driving behavior even further. The biggest concern is for drivers with lower levels of Awareness who engage in distracted driving behaviors which further multiplies their risk of a vehicle accident. While everyone is greatly at risk when they are distracted, those with less attention to detail and vigilance will be less likely to see risks in their peripheral vision, or notice slight changes that occur quickly on the road.
What does this mean for those of us with lower Awareness who drive every day? Here are a few thoughts.
Be aware of how aware you are.
First, we must be self-aware and know our limitations and tendencies when we are driving. Depending on your resting state of Awareness, you may have greater exposure in specific driving situations. For some people it’s noticing small details or changes over time (e.g., a sign on the highway or slight lane departure). For others, it’s when they have to pay attention to two or more things at once (e.g., driving, talking to a passenger, and looking at the GPS). And yet for some, it’s just hard to stay focused (e.g., maintaining vigilance on a long drive). Take steps to diagnose your awareness and know where your psychological blind spots are. There are a few validated psychometric tests out there designed to measure this important safety trait.Read more: Can A Safety Assessment Really Improve Workplace Safety?
Minimize your driving awareness “kryptonite.”
Once you know your natural Awareness better, you should identify the distractions that impact your driving the most. Whether it’s a conversation with a passenger, or eating/drinking something in the car, or fiddling with devices, it’s important to realize that those seemingly harmless behaviors will increase our exposure much more than others if we are naturally more distracted or have lower attention to detail. Think about which driver distractions are most frequent for you and then eliminate or minimize those behaviors as much as possible when driving, especially around busy roads, intersections or highways, where demand for attention is high.
Don’t drive when you are tired.
Driver fatigue is a huge concern and topic in and of itself. Hundreds of lives are lost each year on our roads because people fall asleep at the wheel. But those who already have lower levels of Awareness are likely to be even at risk of a vehicle crash when they are fatigued. The effects of fatigue are more likely to impact them faster and more frequently while driving, compared to those who have higher Awareness. So if you know that you’re not the most naturally alert and attentive person, be especially careful to avoid driving while you are fatigued, as this could exponentially increase your risk.
Knowing ourselves in terms of our traits, tendencies, and driver behaviors can help us to greatly improve our driver safety, as well as the safety of others out on the road. By following these simple steps and improving our driver safety in a way that is personalized to our strengths and blind spots, we can each take personal ownership of safety whenever we are at the wheel.