The other day I pulled up to an intersection where I turn left to leave my community – something I’ve done hundreds of times. I looked both ways, began my turn, and almost instantly I was surprised by a loud honking behind me. I instinctively swerved and looked into my rear view mirror. The image of a big pickup truck filled the mirror.

A close call! No collision, just adrenaline and embarrassment. And I wondered: Why, if I looked both ways, didn’t I see the truck coming?

Later, I understood why:

  1. The truck was dark green and blended in with its surroundings.
  2. I felt rushed – I didn’t want to be late for a meeting.
  3. I was distracted by my thoughts about the meeting

I looked, but I did not see. I was distracted.

Most people have heard about distracted driving but don’t really understand what’s going on.

Death by the numbers…

According to statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 100,000 teen drivers were injured in traffic accidents in 2015. 2,521 of these teens died from their injuries (nearly 50 per week). 290 of these crashes (more than 10%) were caused by distracted teen drivers, killing 322 people.

What is “distracted driving”?

It’s hard to stay safe on the highways. You can’t control “the other driver,” who might suddenly do something that endangers your life. This is why you need to be super-focused on what’s happening around you while driving. If you shift your focus from the road ahead to anything else, something unexpected could happen and you wouldn’t see it. This is what is meant by “distracted driving.”

A common question: “Why can’t you focus on the road and do something else at the same time?”

The simple answer: Because your brain doesn’t work that way.

What’s going on in the brain of a distracted driver…

In the center of your brain is a small area called the thalamus. It works like a switchboard. It receives input from your eyes, ears, body sensations, and other brain activities. Any unexpected input will be routed quickly to the outer thinking part of your brain for analysis so that you can take quick, effective action. This decision-making area can also tell the thalamus to ignore the input and focus on something else.

The shift is necessary because your brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. If it could (it can’t), your brain would be overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts, memories, facts, assumptions, and imaginings that can enter your consciousness. To survive and thrive, the human brain evolved to focus on one thing at a time, and then shift focus from one thing to another as needed.

But, you say, people can multi-task! For example, you can read a book and listen to music at the same time, right?

Actually, if you truly pay attention to the music, your comprehension of what’s on the page will cease until you refocus on the book. Once you are focused on the book, the music becomes background. A musician who sings while playing the piano is actually rapidly shifting her attention back and forth. A hiker who is chewing gum while walking and reading a compass is actually focused on one thing: the compass. The other two actions are habitual, so they’re happening automatically without the need to focus on them.

The danger…

You can only pay attention to one thing at a time. This biological limitation enables you to process information efficiently, but it can also get you killed if you try to apply make-up, watch a soaring hawk, look for a better radio channel, or pick up something you dropped on the floor. If you try to do it, your attention will momentarily shift away from the road ahead.  If you’re traveling 45 mph, your vehicle will travel about 65 feet in one second. If you see danger at that speed, react and try to stop, the vehicle will travel over 250 feet.

So while driving, if you try to do something else that requires attention, you are literally gambling with your life. If the car in front of you has to brake suddenly and you’re not paying attention, you won’t be able to react in time.

This is the danger of distracted driving.

Which distractions are a problem?

The worst distractions are those that require your attention. For example, conversation. If you’re really paying attention to what the other passenger is saying, you won’t be paying attention to the highway. If you truly pay attention to the highway, you’ll miss some of what the other person is saying. So much for “hands-free” phone calls.

If you day-dream about something cool on the way to your destination, you won’t notice or remember many of your surroundings. You might even miss your turn. It happens all the time.

Anything that grabs your attention for more than a second steals your attention from the road: adjusting the air conditioning, your seat, or the rear-view mirror. Think about how much attention it takes to look at a map or to send a text message!

At the end of the day, you might say: “Well, I sent a text message and I made it home safe, so it’s not so bad. I can handle it.” No, man, you can’t. You just got lucky. The next time you take that risk you may not be so lucky. You might end up in the hospital or as one of the fatality statistics.

3 ways to stay focused on the road:

  1. Get to the car early so you can (like an airplane pilot) go through a routine series of checks before you take off: adjust your seat and mirrors; select your favorite radio channel; buckle your seat belt; set the A/C the way you want it; turn your headlights on (so all the other drivers will see you better); and finish grooming. Make voice calls and send text messages before you back out of the driveway.
  2. Commit to focusing your attention on the road 100% all the way to your destination. If your phone signals an incoming call or text message, don’t answer it. If a passenger wants to talk, tell him: “I’m interested in that, but not right now. I need to focus on this traffic.” Even your thoughts and feelings can distract you.
  3. Remember that some cars may be hard to see, whether it’s the color or a parked car down the street blocking your view.

Give a teen a link to this post. It might help save his or her life. And you know this wake-up call about distracted driving also applies to you. It’s crazy to take unnecessary chances with your life.



Many more ways for young people to acquire good judgment are described in my book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain, 2nd Edition.