New Technologies Provide Convenience Along With Distractions and Risk

In the digital era, multitasking has become a way of life. While reading the news, we chat with colleagues through instant message. While having coffee with friends, we check text messages. We divide our attention between multiple activities, trusting that each activity only demands a fraction of our available capacity.

Most of the time, this is not a serious problem. We have adapted to a way of life that anticipates and accepts constant interruptions. Unfortunately though, some activities are not well-suited to this approach. Most notably, perhaps, is the activity of driving. Driving demands an individual's full attention. When drivers offer anything less, the consequences can be tragic.

Most of the attention on distracted driving recently has focused on the activity of texting while driving.

In this arena, the research is clear. According to a 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, when truck drivers sent text messages, the risk of collision was 23 times greater than when they were not sending text messages. Before a crash or near crash, drivers spent an average of about five seconds with their eyes off the road, allowing them to travel more than the length of a football field.

Researchers at the University of Utah found significantly elevated risks among college students who were simulating texting while driving. Although the risks were not as high as those found in the Virginia Tech study, they were still high enough to warrant restraint in the practice. The college students were about eight times more likely to be involved in a simulated accident when texting than when not.

However, researchers have long recognized that texting while driving is by no means the only dangerous distraction. In 1997, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study indicating that crashes were four times more likely to occur when drivers were talking on their phones.

Notably, researchers found that telephones that allowed the hands to be free were not any safer than telephones that required the use of one's hands — perhaps surprising, given the number of states that have passed laws requiring hands-free devices. The researchers likened the dangers affiliated with talking on a cell phone while driving to those of driving while intoxicated.

Many who spend long periods of time in their vehicles for work purposes would like policymakers to ignore the evidence and the research. Even as laws increasingly restrict activities like talking on cell phones while driving or sending text messages, some continue to push for exceptions for particular industries or occupations.

In recent years, on-board computers have also become a problem, causing significant distractions for drivers. Truck drivers, for instance, often have on-board computers that allow them to communicate with trucking companies. These computers provide information about orders, directions and important messages — but can also unquestionably be a distraction.

Similarly, police officers have on-board computers that provide information and allow them to enter records while they are in the field. This is a matter of convenience for the officers, but it is dangerous for the officers and everyone else on the roads.

Anyone driving needs to devote his or her full attention to the road. This is just as true for professional drivers and police officers as ordinary citizens. Vehicles travel too quickly to spare even a moment's distraction, and the consequences can be deadly.