We rarely think of driving as a skill—especially if we are seasoned drivers who have been on the road for some time now. Yet, successful driving is dependent upon a sophisticated interplay of several our systems at once. A compromise in one or all of these systems can be catastrophic in its effect. Driving distractions are exactly that: a threat to the integrity of this synergy. Experts agree that there are three primary avenues of distraction: those affecting your vision, those affecting your mind, and those affecting your hands. We can see why any of these poses a detriment to safe driving. If you cannot see properly, you cannot even assess your situation correctly, so there is little hope of responding safely. If your mind is preoccupied, then it is not working on making safe decisions. And if your hands are already engaged in something else, then they are not on the steering wheel, and are therefore not prepared to respond to danger in a timely way. Let us consider the various distractions that threaten coordination among these systems.
Cell phones. These are among the worst offenders when it comes to driver distractions because they actually affect all three systems. While it is now illegal in all provinces to drive while talking on a hand-held cell phone, they are still a manual distraction: fumbling with hands-free connections, as well as texting (which is against the law, but still grossly practiced) attest to this. They are visually distracting by nature. Our eyes tend to look towards light sources, so when our devices flash to let us know that there is an incoming call or a new text message, this prompts us to take our eyes off of the road. Finally, they distract us mentally. It is important to remember that hands-free cell phone use is not distraction free. Our minds need to be 100% engaged in the task of driving.
Eating. This distraction is primarily manual (although it can also be a visual distraction when you are trying to manage it in a mess-free way). You need at least one hand to eat, which means that you have reduced your manual control over the steering wheel by a minimum of 50%. Sometimes it's more, as in those occasions where you need to unwrap your food and so forth. In those instances, both hands are removed from the wheel, diminishing your manual control entirely. Even if your eyes are on the road and you can see danger coming, and even if your mind is quick to assess and respond, you have no means by which to react: your hands are tied up.
Smoking. Similarly to eating, this ties up your hands so that they are not prepared to respond to situations as they arise.
Grooming. This is another multi-system offender. Doing your makeup on the way to work is bad idea. Your eyes are not on the road because they are instead looking in the mirror. Your hands are not on the wheel because they are engaged in the application of cosmetics. Your mind is not ready to assess whatever already impoverished input it is receiving because it is focused on the task of grooming. Grooming is best done at home.
GPS. These are wonderful devices, and when all goes well, they should actually diminish the mental distractions associated with confusion around directions. However, when things go awry, they pose significant temptation for distraction. Instead of occasional glances, our eyes spend more time focused on them trying to figure out what has gone wrong. Our minds are mulling over the possible causes of misdirection. And when we reach for them to re-enter our destination, our hands are disengaged from the wheel. If your GPS gives you a nasty surprise, give it the cold shoulder. Exit or pull aside to where you can stop safely, and deal with it when you are no longer on the road.