Want to curb your distracted driving? Stop adjusting the radio!

Nick DiUlio

When it comes to our lack of focus behind the wheel, the cellphone often steals the show. However, wireless texting and chatting aren’t the only sources of dangerous distractions. In fact, some of the most potentially distracting devices are built right into our cars.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 26,000 crashes in 2010 involved adjusting devices or controls in the car, which include radios, CD or MP3 players, GPS systems and even climate controls. That was out of nearly 900,000 distracted-driving crashes reported to police that year.

“We don’t often think about it as a significant distraction when we look down to adjust the radio or AC, but when you’re cruising down the highway at 60 miles an hour, that quick glance is a lot of time,” says Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Network of California.

To emphasize the point, Lehman emphasizes that 60 miles per hour is equivalent to 88 feet per second. Taking your eyes off the road for just three seconds means you’ve traveled 264 feet, roughly the distance of a football field, without seeing what’s in front of you.

“A lot of things can happen on a stretch of highway the length of a football field,” says Lehman. “Cellphones get all the attention here, but there’s more to it than that.”

Indeed. According to a 2010 survey conducted by Nationwide Insurance, more than 80 percent of drivers identified themselves as multitaskers (meaning they frequently engage in other tasks while behind the wheel).

The No. 1 culprit? Adjusting the radio or CD player, with 82 percent of drivers saying they frequently engage in this behavior.

“This type of distraction is extremely common and doesn’t get enough attention,” says Dan Weedin, an insurance consultant. “Some of our most common devices are potentially the most dangerous.”

Government and tech solutions

To address this problem, NHTSA recently proposed auto industry guidelines that might make in-car devices less distracting to drivers. The suggested guidelines — which automakers aren’t obligated to follow — require all dashboard functions to be possible with one or more two-second glances away from the road. Some of the recommendations include reducing how complicated it is to use the device and being able to operate the device using only one hand.

Additionally, Carroll Lachnit, features editor for automotive website Edmunds.com, says automakers are introducing more hands-free dashboard control options to reduce distractions.

“The most obvious thing you’ll see these days are steering-wheel-mounted controls that can cycle through everything from the iPod to the CD player to the Bluetooth,” Lachnit says. “But driver distraction isn’t just about the technology. There’s a psychology involved as well.”

For instance, let’s say you get in the car, start driving, and then suddenly realize your son or daughter has changed all of your preset radio stations. The effect – and distraction – is twofold. You’ll be physically distracted when you reset your stations, Lachnit says, and your mind will be distracted because you’re angry with your kid.

“The mind is always the wild card,” Lachnit says, “and people need to worry about that as much as they do the technology.”

The insurance effect

Not only is distracted driving extremely dangerous to you, your passengers and others on the road, it could lead to a world of hurt when it comes to your auto insurance policy.

“If you’re involved in an at-fault accident because you were distracted in some way, it’s just like running a stop light and hitting someone,” Weedin says. “In the insurance company’s eyes, that’s a high degree of negligence and your policy is probably not going to be renewed.”

Weedin says several studies conclude that distracted driving — in all forms — is just as dangerous as drunk driving. Most insurance companies will look at a distraction-related wreck the same way they would if it had been caused by drunk driving, he says.

“Insurance companies understand the general risks of driving and can live with the occasional accident here and there,” Weedin says. “What they won’t tolerate is when you do something you knew wasn’t right — like talking on your phone or fidgeting with devices behind the wheel — because they figure you’ll probably do it again, because people generally don’t change their habits.”

And when you shop for a new auto insurance policy, Weedin uses just one word to describe the process: “Brutal.”

The negligence that caused the accident will stay on your record for three years, Weedin says. During that time, insurers either will deny coverage or charge you more as a high-risk driver.

“People need to think of distracted driving like they do drunk driving,” Weedin says. “Insurance companies are very anal when it comes to statistics, and they know without a shadow of a doubt that distracted driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence.”

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