Distracted Driving – How to Save A Teen’s Life

Most people have heard about distracted driving but don’t really understand what’s going on. Give a teen a link to this post. It might help save his or her life.

Death by the numbers…

These days, fewer teenagers are getting their driver license, a traditional rite of passage. Maybe part of the reason is that they acknowledge the hazards of driving. Traffic accidents are, after all, the leading cause of death among teens. 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).

An important finding: 290 of these crashes (nearly 10%) were caused by distracted teen drivers, killing 322 people, including 272 teens.

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: 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. For example, to shift from sensing the road ahead to watching sheep in a meadow or singing along with the radio.

The shift is necessary because your brain can’t focus on everything at once. If it did (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 desired.

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

Actually, not really. 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 happening automatically, so you don’t 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 35 mph, your vehicle will travel about 500 feet in one second.

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 danger of distracted driving.

Which distractions are a problem?

The worst distractions are those that require more of 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 micro-second steals your attention from the road: adjusting the air conditioning, your seat, or the rearview 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. 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.

How to save your life…

The trick to maintaining your focus on the road involves two things:

  1. Get to the car early so you can (like an airplane pilot) go through a standard 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.”

My purpose in writing this is to help you save your life and to reduce the teen traffic fatality statistics. But if you’re an adult, you know this wake-up call about distracted driving applies to you, too. It’s crazy to take unnecessary chances with your life.

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

Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, such as  “A Practical Plan to Moderate Teen Screen Exposure.”