You don’t have to be holding a cell phone to be a distracted driver. Even a hands-free phone can be unsafe, especially if you’re an older driver.
What scares people on the road? Cell phone users. In fact, 83 percent of adults ranked this type of driver a more serious threat than people who speed, drive aggressively, or run red lights. Only drunk driving scored higher, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports.
We know that cell phones and driving are a dangerous mix. Researchers estimate that cell phone users fail to see up to half of the visual cues in front of them. So, it’s no mystery that drivers using cell phones are four times more likely to have an accident.
Knowing these risks, though, doesn’t seem to deter driving and cell phone use. More than half of those same people AAA surveyed admitted they had talked on a cell phone while driving within the last 30 days. At any one time, 1 in 10 drivers is on the phone.
Using a cell phone in a car is especially risky for older drivers. Aging can bring on declines in vision, cognitive, and motor skills. This can make older drivers slower to shift their attention and react while on the road. It may also require greater effort for an elder to read a message display or dial a number while driving. A person may try to make up for slower reflexes or impaired skills by slowing down or stopping, but this can cause a crash, too.
The better news is that people over age 65 are the least likely of all age groups to be talking on a phone or texting while driving. If they have an accident, studies show it is more likely due to the distraction of talking to a fellow passenger than using a cell phone.
To hold or not to hold the phone
Many drivers who use a speakerphone or a hands-free device think the warnings do not apply to them. Their hands are always on the wheel, after all. But are they really any less distracted?
State laws that ban only handheld phones tend to give the false impression that hands-free devices are safer. The fact is that studies comparing handheld to hands-free phone use while driving found no difference in risks. People using any type of cell phone are subject to “inattention blindness.” This means that you can look at objects, but not really see them. Plus, researchers tracking eye movements of people using hands-free phones found that they made fewer glances at traffic lights and rearview mirrors than those not using a phone.
A distraction by any other name
Driver distractions rival alcohol and speeding as a leading factor in traffic deaths and serious injuries. This is because switching from one task to another slows your reaction time to hazards. Putting on your brakes just a fraction of a second later could lead to a fatal crash.
A cell phone is not the only competition for mental resources when at the wheel, however. Anything that takes attention away from driving can lead to a crash:
- Drinking coffee
- Putting on makeup or combing your hair
- Checking a map or directions
- Listening to a loud radio or music
- Changing the radio station or a CD
- Tending to a pet
Chatting with a passenger while driving can be dangerous, too. It is not as risky as talking on a cell, though, because a passenger can see traffic problems and stop talking when driving becomes harder. A passenger may also alert the driver to a danger on the road, which someone on the phone can’t do.
Car crashes are among the top three causes of death. And, older drivers are far more likely to be killed or injured in a car crash than younger people because their bodies are more fragile.
If you drive with a cell phone in your car, follow these safety tips:
- Turn it off while driving.
- Use voice mail to pick up calls while you’re driving.
- Find a rest stop or a safe place to pull over if you need to make a call.
- Ask someone else in the car to make a call for you.
- Review maps and directions before your trip.