(BPT) - Many people who encounter a car weaving wildly out of its lane, speeding up and slowing down randomly, veering into oncoming traffic or breezing through stop signs will immediately think 'drunk driver.'
While drunk driving is an extremely dangerous hazard on American roadways, this behavior is just as easily associated with sober but distracted drivers - who can be just as dangerous as drivers who have had too much to drink.
In fact, distracted driving is so out of hand that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called it 'an epidemic.'
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 3,092 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2010, the most recent year for which there is data available, and an estimated 416,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.
'The dangers of distracted driving are extremely real and completely avoidable,' says James Fults, vice president of personal auto insurance at Fireman's Fund Insurance Company. 'All of us, no matter how old or young we are and no matter how much experience we have behind the wheel, need to remember that when we're driving there is only one thing we should be concentrating on, and that's driving.'
Researchers say multi-tasking is actually a myth and that the human brain can only fully concentrate on one cognitively challenging task at a time - like having a conversation or driving. Doing both of these things at once, even when using a 'hands-free' cellphone device, requires the brain to quickly switch back and forth between the two activities, always leaving one task short-changed.
This inability to multitask leads to 'inattention blindness' - looking at but not seeing something right in front of the viewer. Alarmingly, estimates suggest that drivers using cellphones look at but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment, according to The National Safety Council.
Distracted driving is any activity, coupled with operating a vehicle, that takes attention away from driving. There are three main types of distracted driving: visual, which involves taking one's eyes off the road; manual, which involves taking one's hands off the wheel; and cognitive, which involves taking one's mind off the operation of the vehicle.
Examples of activities drivers should avoid:
* Using a cellphone or smartphone, including 'hands free' use
* Eating and drinking
* Talking to passengers
* Reading, including maps
* Programming a navigation system
* Watching a video
* Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player
Driver distractions have joined alcohol and speeding as leading factors in fatal and serious injury crashes and cellphone use is one of the most dangerous and common driver distractions, according to research published in 2012 by The National Safety Council in the study 'Understanding the Distracted Brain.'
'In this day and age, many of us are required to juggle many tasks during the course of the day and we pride ourselves on our multitasking ability,' Fults says. 'But it's clear that driving and doing anything else dramatically increases our risk of crashing.'
Younger and inexperienced drivers are most at risk, with 16 percent of all distracted driving crashes involving drivers under 20. 'Parents need to train their teens to put the cellphone away when driving,' says Eric Sanders, vice president of claims and risk services at Fireman's Fund Insurance Company. 'Purchase a device that doesn't allow cellphone use in the car. It's one of the most important purchases a parent can make.' An example is Cellcontrol which prevents texting while driving.
At any given moment during daylight hours, more than 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cellphone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 'Talking on the phone and driving can be a difficult habit to break, but it's especially important for businesses to train employees to pull off the road when taking a conference call - or any call, for that matter,' says Sanders. 'Ensuring that employees don't call and drive limits liability and, most importantly, saves lives.'
Couple cellphone use with other distractions, and it's no wonder that distracted driving has become an epidemic.