By now, almost everyone knows the dangers of texting or talking on a cellphone while driving. But phones aren’t the only distractions drivers should be aware of. Experts say that anything that draws your attention away from the road can be a potential cause of an accident. That includes actions and situations as innocuous as snacking behind the wheel or postponing a bathroom break.
Most adults who drive regularly admit to engaging in distracting behaviors while behind the wheel, according to a Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll. Eighty-six percent eat or drink while driving, 59 percent use a hand-held cellphone, 41 percent fiddle with their GPS device, 37 percent text and 14 percent apply makeup, according to the poll.
“Distracted driving can be deadly driving,” says Julie Lee, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety. “Researchers are finding that any type of distraction is risky, not just the ones we typically think of as dangerous, like texting or talking on the phone.”
In fact, a study led by Dr. Peter Snyder, vice president of research for Lifespan, a Rhode Island-based health system, found that a strong urge to urinate can impair your functioning as effectively as drinking alcohol or being sleep deprived. And the effects of hunger, thirst and tiredness on attention spans and reflex times have been well known for years.
Here are three other potentially distracting behaviors and situations that you might not view as risky:
Eating and/or drinking – We all do it, especially when we’re in a hurry to make an appointment, have skipped a meal or just can’t make it through the rest of the drive without a cup of joe. But eating or drinking while driving involves taking at least one hand – and part of your attention – off the wheel. Consider the 2011 case of a woman in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Police said she hit a guardrail and flipped her Subaru when she spilled hot coffee during her morning drive. Fortunately, she sustained only minor injuries.
Unrestrained pets – Many pet owners think of their dogs as their children. But while they’re diligent about buckling up the kids and grandkids, they don’t always secure their dogs while in the car. Allowing your pet to ride unrestrained – in your lap, beside you or in the backseat – is dangerous for you and him. A survey by AAA and Kurgo Pet Products found that 65 percent of respondents had participated in at least one dog-related distracting behavior while driving, such as petting (52 percent) or allowing the dog to sit in their lap (17 percent). Restraining your pet can help minimize driver distractions, restrict the pet’s movement in case of a crash, and protect pets from potentially being harmed by inflating airbags.
Rubbernecking – Slowing down or pulling over to get a better look at an accident not only displays a lack of tact, it could also cause another accident. If your eyes are on the crash you’re approaching – or passing – they’re not on the road ahead of you. As recently as August 2012, police in Greenbelt, Md., cited rubbernecking as the probable cause of a double accident that shut down a major highway during morning rush hour. A Maryland State Police spokesperson told the Greenbelt Patch that police see rubbernecking accidents “all the time.”
“Although drivers age 50 and older are less likely to engage in distracting behaviors like texting or using a hand-held cellphone behind the wheel, they may face other challenges, such as natural changes in vision, hearing and reaction times,” says Lee.
Brushing up on driving skills can help older drivers manage health-related changes that may come with age. AARP’s Driver Safety course is specifically designed to help people 50 and older refresh their driving skills. To find a classroom course near you, visit www.aarp.org/drive or call 888-227-7669, or sign up for an online course. Courses are available in English or Spanish.