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July 11, 2013
By Ed Newell

FORT LEE, Va. (July 11, 2013) -- Driving is a skill that requires your full attention.

Steering, maintaining the correct speed, keeping a safe distance from other vehicles, watching for road hazards, reacting to sudden changes in the traffic pattern … all of these things and more are among the complexities of operating a motor vehicle, and the difference between a safe journey and a serious accident is usually a few feet, a few seconds and just one distraction that caused the driver to lose his or her focus.

There are three types of distractions, and they are defined as anything that takes a driver's eyes off the road (visual), mind off the road (cognitive) or hands off the steering wheel (manual).

Most drivers can probably recall an instance when they were talking on the phone or engaged in a conversation with a passenger and missed an exit or turn because their attention was focused on something other than operating the vehicle. Quite a few could probably cite incidents of rolling through a red light or missing a stop sign because they were fidgeting with the radio or reaching for something in the vehicle as well. Are those situations harmless inconveniences or warning signs of what could be a major accident the next time it happens?

According to a study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some form of driver distraction that occurred within three seconds of the incident. The study also noted that the most common contributing factors included cellphone use (including texting), reaching for an object inside the vehicle, looking at something (other than the road ahead) outside of the vehicle, reading or writing and applying makeup.

Cellphones are particularly troubling because they've become so commonplace in people's lives these days that individuals often don't even realize how frequently or when and where they're using them. According to an NHTSA statistic, at any given time during daylight hours on our nation's highways, more than 10 percent of drivers are engaged in a cellphone conversation through voice -- both hand-held and hands-free devices -- or texting.

It should be noted that, as of July 1, texting is consider a "primary" traffic offense in Virginia, meaning those spotted by the police can be pulled over and ticketed. Also, drivers under age 18 may not use any type of hand-held or hands-free wireless phone while driving. All military installations prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones by anyone operating a motor vehicle, regardless of age or status (military, civilian, contractors, visitors, etc.).

Studies have shown that driving performance is lowered and the level of distraction is higher for drivers who are engaged in cellphone conversations/texting. The percentage of vehicle crashes and near-crashes attributed to texting is nearly identical to the number associated with talking or listening.

With those results in mind, it just makes sense to finish cell phone calls before starting a vehicle. If the phone rings while driving, let voicemail pick it up. If it's a call that can't be ignored, pull over to a safe location and park before answering and engaging in a conversation. Smart thinking could save you a ticket or, better yet, being guilty of causing a tragic accident.
Other common driving distractions that need to be avoided include the following:

• Eating -- it means opening packages, unwrapping food, reaching, spilling and wiping. Stop and enjoy the meal; it's a good break from driving, especially during long road trips.

• Tending to children -- a moving vehicle is no place for youth antics. Teach your young ones why it's important to be a good driver who is focused on the road. Remember that they will usually model your behavior when they're old enough to get behind the wheel.

• Disruptive passengers -- a carload of friends can be very distracting with loud talking, quarrels over music selections or horseplay. Set the rules of behavior before putting the vehicle in motion. Remember that driving is a privilege that can be quickly lost.

• Pets pose a hazard if they're climbing over seats or on the driver's lap. Secure them with a pet harness or in a pet carrier. Never allow a pet to sit in your lap while driving.

• Road navigation devices -- whether mounted on the dashboard, part of your vehicle's console or held in the hand -- pose a big distraction while the operator is searching for information. It's just smart to "surf" for destinations, favorite radio channels and comfortable climate control settings before beginning the task of driving down the road. Asking for help from a passenger is also a good idea.

• "Rubber-necking" while passing an accident (or construction work, or a scenic view) means the driver is not paying attention to the road and is very likely causing additional traffic congestion due to his or her lack of focus. Think before you act in the interest of safety for everyone in the vehicle.

Parents of teens or those directly responsible for younger drivers -- i.e. a platoon sergeant in charge of new troops -- should also keep in mind that the leading cause of death for 15-to-20-year-olds is vehicle crashes.

Furthermore, the chances of an accident increase when other individuals in that age group are riding in a vehicle with a teen driver. That's why it's important to stress the hazards of distracted driving noted earlier and to help young drivers come up with strategies and safety rules that will improve their chances of avoiding an accident when they're behind the wheel.

The dangers of distracted driving cannot be ignored. State legislators are taking it very seriously and continue to pass new laws -- like the anti-texting amendment in Virginia -- to hopefully reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on the nation's roadways. Furthermore, privately owned vehicle crashes continue to be the number one killer of Soldiers.
These deaths impact the Army, families and friends, and they jeopardize combat readiness. Recognizing the many factors of distracted driving and taking steps to prevent them is every driver's duty.

It's important to "Know the Signs" (2013 Summer Safety Campaign slogan) and to know what right looks like so steps can be taken to reduce the chances of an accident.