Distracted Driving: What Causes Crashes and How Can We Fix It?

Quynn Lubs, Editorials Editor

   Distraction was a key factor in 58 percent of 1,691 car crashes involving teens aged 16-19. Whether it was texting, scrolling through social media or talking on the phone, distracted driving was reported to have killed 3,166 people in 2017.

   However, distracted driving means more than just cell phone use. One can be distracted by eating or drinking while driving, spacing out, listening to music and even adjusting the temperature controls of the car. 

   In May of 2015, a 41-year-old truck driver claimed he was “zoning out” and in “auto-pilot” when he crashed into a stopped vehicle in a construction zone, killing three high school boys.

   “Zoning out” is a phenomenon described by scientists as “mind wandering,” and it is actually the natural state of our brains 25-50 percent of the time. It occurs mostly when the task at hand is not stimulating, so the brain decides to go somewhere else more interesting. The most efficient way to avoid crashes related to spacing out is to realize when you are doing it. 

   Many believe that the best way to do this is by listening to music, and although music allows you to focus on something other than your thoughts, it still distracts you from paying attention to the road.

   In a study done by researchers on background music as a risk factor for distraction among young-novice drivers, 85 drivers aged 17-18 were asked to drive a series of routes with a driving instructor. Some of the participants listened to no music during the drive, some listened to instrumental music curated by the researchers, and some listened to a playlist of their own music. The participants listening to their own music reported to be happier, but they made significantly more driving errors, such as aggression, speeding and weaving.

   All 85 of the participants made at least three errors in one of the six trips, 17 requiring interruption from the instructor to avoid an accident.

   I cannot drive without listening to music. I either have my phone playing Spotify playlists, or I play CDs for when my phone battery is too low. When I drive without music, I tend to space out, and I enjoy the drive much less. Yet when I drive with music, I am distracted by it. 

   What is the happy medium?

   Distracted driving is a practice ingrained into our society, especially in modern times with social media and smartphones. There are ways to avoid car accidents, like noticing when you are spacing out or turning your music down just a little bit. We can learn to be safer drivers by avoiding using our phone while on the road, driving at reasonable speeds and paying attention to our surroundings. Spacing out is extremely common. Listening to music is a necessity to some. 

   It is important to be aware of the many ways our minds can be distracted. Put your phones away, turn your music down a little, save your snack for later, and pay attention to when your mind is wandering. We can not control the actions of other people on the road, but we can control what we, as individuals, do inside of our own vehicles.