March 16, 2001 (Washington) -- There's a lot of hoopla over legislative proposals to crack down on the use of cell phones while driving, but new data suggest that other activities are more likely to be dangerous.
Preliminary data on tens of thousands of North Carolina crashes collected by the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety show that distraction was a factor for about 50%. According to the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), distracted driving has a role in 4,000-8,000 accidents each day.
Of the distraction-related crashes, about 1 in 5 involved drivers who had their attention diverted by something outside their own vehicle. But almost as many crashes were blamed on the driver's eating or drinking while behind the wheel.
Less than 2% of the distraction-related crashes stemmed from cell phone use, according to the study. By contrast, more than 11% crashed from tuning or adjusting their sound systems, and more than 9% of crashes involved drivers who were distracted by other people in their car.
"Anything you do in a car other than drive will distract you, and that distraction can ultimately lead to you having an accident," says Mark Edwards, managing director of traffic safety programs for the AAA. "It doesn't make any difference whether it's opening a glove compartment, tuning a radio, reading a map, carrying on a conversation, talking on a cell phone, drinking a cup of coffee, or eating a sandwich."
The data were collected from 1995 and 1998, but the foundation says that it will include 1999 data in the final results, which it hopes to release later this month.
A NETS survey last year also found that cell phone use does not rank at the top of distractions. Eating and adjusting the radio or CD player hold the dubious top honors. Kathy Lusby-Treber, the network's executive director, tells WebMD, "There are a number of different distracters. Cell phones are not the only one."
"People focus on cell phones -- without realizing that their sandwich is probably a more possible cause of a crash," says Stephanie Faul, communications director for the AAA foundation.
According to Faul, however, "We don't know which activities are more distracting; we only know which distractions have caused crashes."
Edwards tells WebMD that researchers are still trying to determine what levels of distraction are unsafe.
Increasingly busy lives may require people to multitask while driving, but the experts offer WebMD some pointers for keeping distractions to a minimum:
- Try to plan so you don't have to eat in the car. If you must eat, keep it tidy and simple. Better to eat a granola bar than a bowl of cereal, notes Lusby-Treber. And use a secure cup holder, so you don't have to chase down a coffee mug that's about to tip over.
- If you're going to meet someone in a place you're not familiar with, get the directions before you get in the car, Edwards says.
- If you need to make a call on your cell phone, don't do it while you're merging onto the freeway. Instead, get on the open road with some clear space around you.
- Hand off distracting activities to passengers. For example, let someone else try to decipher a map if you're behind the wheel.
"Part of the problem is that people are spending too much time in their cars," Faul tells WebMD. "People really need to re-examine their lifestyles."