‘Just Drive’ Reveals Dangers of Driving While Distracted (Even ‘Hands-Free’ Isn’t Safe)

By Tiffany Fox

San Diego, Calif., Dec. 4, 2014 — Most of us wouldn’t get behind the wheel with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit. Yet 80 percent of adults and 90 percent of college students in San Diego County admit to regularly engaging in a behavior that is just as dangerous: Driving while distracted.

From left, Dr. Linda Hill, Capt. Rich Stewart and Detective Brian MacPherson.
From left, UC San Diego Professor of Family Medicine Linda Hill, Captain Rich Stewart of the California Highway Patrol and Detective Brian MacPherson of the UC San Diego Police Department.

“Just Drive,” a new course being offered through the University of California, San Diego Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems (CWPHS), aims to educate the public about distracted driving, especially driving while using mobile phones. The one-hour course was offered last month to employees of the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute, where CWPHS is based, bringing the total number of individuals educated through the program so far to more than 3,500. 

The statistics associated with distracted driving are astounding. According to Linda Hill, a professor of Family and Preventive Medicine at UC San Diego, driving while talking on a mobile phone – even a hands-free device  creates a distraction equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent (the legal definition of impairment in the state of California). Fifty percent of college students admit to texting while driving on the freeway. An estimated 26 percent of crashes are caused by distracted drivers using cell phones and according to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2012 alone, 3,328 people were killed in such collisions. 

“Our brains can’t do everything at once,” noted Hill, who developed the “Just Drive” course with colleagues after her survey of 5,000 anonymous college students in 2012 revealed significant distracted driving behaviors. “Using cell phones while driving leads to visual distractions like taking your eyes off the road, manual distractions like fiddling with the phone and cognitive distractions associated with having a conversation, even though your eyes are on the road and your hands are on the steering wheel. People think that because it’s legal to drive hands-free that it’s safe, but the data do not support that.”

Hill and her colleagues in the CWPHS Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety (TREDS) program received funding last year from the California Office of Traffic Safety to develop “Just Drive.” It’s facilitated by retired and active officers from the California Highway Patrol and features interactive modules designed to create awareness around the hazards of distracted driving. 

Participants in the course take pre- and post-tests to gauge their knowledge about the risks and are shown videos of simulated distracted driving crashes and interviews with victims and families of the deceased. They also participate in several interactive exercises, including one in which they are asked to type a short text message, such as “Home in 5 minutes.” To type such a message, the facilitators note, the average driver will have had his/her eyes off the road for six seconds  the equivalent of driving the length of a football field while blind. 

Hill says that part of the problem with reducing distracted driving behaviors is that few people want to admit that they are perpetrators. A third of people engaging in distracted driving behaviors, for example, are parents with children in the car. 

“I often use the analogy that distracted driving is like secondhand smoke,” she adds. “People think, ‘It’s my health, it’s my business,’ but it’s not. It’s not just about putting the driver at risk.”

According to Hill, researchers increasingly believe distracted driving is an addiction, akin to smoking cigarettes (the “Just Drive” course materials, notably, are designed based on smoking cessation courses).

“The issue with cell phone use while driving is one of positive rewards vs. negative consequences,” Hill explains. “If you’re getting positively rewarded, you’re going to continue engaging in the activity. For example, 31 percent of adults in the CWPHS survey felt obliged to take work calls while driving. They’re avoiding a negative consequence  being reprimanded for not being available  and being positively rewarded by someone on the other end being glad they got a hold of them.” 

Adds Hill: “It’s really like smoking cigarettes. Are you more driven by instant gratification or the hypothetical long-term consequence of getting cancer?” 

Hill says that even driving behaviors that are perceived as ‘benign’  such as using one’s phone while idling at a stoplight  can pose risk. “People misjudge if lights change, they don’t check for pedestrians, conversations don’t end when a light changes,” she explains. “The person on the other end of the phone has no idea what is going on where you are, unlike when you are having a conversation with a person in the seat next to you, who can adjust their conversation to what’s happening around you. They know to pause when they see you’re engaged, for example. They can spot things you don’t see on the road, or help with navigation.

“It seems like we go into another space when we’re on our phones,” she continues. “When we’re in a restaurant and we’re talking to our companion, we have an awareness of who’s around us and we keep our voice at a level where we’re not distracted. But the moment someone picks up a phone they’ve completely lost track of their surroundings. They’re talking as if no one can hear them and saying the most private ridiculous things.”

Hill says that same “cognitive load” happens when we allow our mobile devices to distract us while driving. “We’re looking straight ahead and not seeing. Literally, you see 50 percent less of what’s in front of you while you’re on your phone versus when you’re focused on driving. People say, ‘I was on the phone and I don’t even remember how I got home.’"

So what does Hill recommend as a solution (that is, until self-driving cars make it a moot point)?

It’s simple, she says: “Put the phone in the trunk and take it out of temptation’s way.” 

“It’s almost impossible, when that ‘ding’ goes off, not to check your phone,” she adds. “We have to remove the temptation. That means you answer when you can safely do so or are free to do so, and not before. It also means raising the issue with your family and significant others and colleagues.”

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links

Training, Research and Education for Driver Safety (TREDS)

Just Drive