Each year, more than 3,000 people in the US are killed by accidents caused by distracted drivers. But what types of activities cause drivers to lose focus on the road and put themselves and others at risk? 

According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted driving is "any activity that could divert a person's attention away from the primary task of driving".

That list includes activities like applying mascara in the rear view mirror, adjusting the radio, using navigation systems, eating and drinking, even passengers are distractions.

Now that mobile phones and voice command systems have become more and more a part of the driving experience, distractions in the car just got a whole lot more difficult to resist. 

The use of mobile phones while driving has become a greater hazard than drinking; it has become the leading cause of death for teen drivers in the US. 

On this week's episode of TechKnow, contributors Lindsay Moran and Kosta Grammatis take a look at the science behind distracted driving. They go head to head in a variety of tests designed to show how modern technology impacts on how well we drive. And they also find out why the very concept of multitasking is a myth.


By Lindsay Moran

I'll admit to feeling a bit cocky going into the distracted driving shoot for TechKnow, in which co-contributor Kosta Grammatis and I were pitted against one another in simulators and on-the-road tests. Who could better handle driving while subjected to various outside stimuli and distractions? The answer seemed obvious - at least to me.

Not only did I have extensive training and lots of practice driving while distracted for the CIA, I continue to use those skills every day - spending hours on the road doing what I call "driving while mom".

In CIA training, we had a two-week course, affectionately referred to as Crash and Burn, during which we practiced handling ourselves under a variety of intimidating - sometimes downright harrowing - driving conditions and circumstances. We were timed speeding around a racetrack at the CIA's training facility known as The Farm, swerving around obstacles in our path. We had to learn to weave through cones in reverse, without ever turning around. And we practiced crashing through barriers like two parked cars and peeling out to escape. We even did some driving while blindfolded. (Let it be known that I was awarded "Most Improved" status at the end of Crash and Burn.)

Later, in the field, much of my life as an operative was spent behind the wheel - hours conducting what are called Surveillance Detection Routes to determine if I was being followed; travelling from one remote backwater to another along unlit mountainous roads; and also conducting agent meetings - debriefing sources that is - often while in the driver's seat.

To be honest though, CIA training and experience pales in comparison to the distractions I'm subjected to while driving nowadays - kids in the backseat clamouring for music, juice boxes, snacks, bathroom breaks, or just plain attention. When the kids are not in the car, I typically use my driving time to take care of all manner of personal and professional business. Always careful to use a hands-free device, I nonetheless make doctors' appointments, conduct interviews, line up babysitters, or just catch up with friends and family. Both my parents know that when they hear from me, it usually means I'm driving somewhere.

TechKnow contributors Lindsay Moran and Kosta Grammatis find out how modern technology impacts driving [Al Jazeera]

The distracted driving story changed all that for me. Not only was I humbled to learn - after a variety of simulator and road tests - that I am no better a driver than Kosta, I also discovered that I'm far from the able multitasker I'd always imagined myself to be. In fact, Kosta's and my performance in several tests that measured our capacity to multitask while driving, bore out the findings of University of Utah researchers that none of us is really capable of focusing on more than one thing at a time.

Even hand-free distractions - like talking to Siri or having a cellphone conversation with one's mother - are just as potentially dangerous as, say, driving while drunk. And who among us hasn't been guilty of at one time responding to what seemed like an urgent text while driving?

That statistic, and the realisation of my own limitations has caused me to change my behaviour altogether. I now have an app on my phone that essentially saves me from myself. It will respond to incoming texts with a message that tells the contact that I'm driving and unavailable. There are many similar apps and also innovations being developed to monitor a driver for distractedness or drowsiness.

I went into this shoot with Kosta driven (pun intended) by my competitive spirit and a desire to prove that, research be damned, I could "do it all" while driving. But the only thing I won this time was a greater understanding of just how distracting doing anything but focusing on the road is, and just how dangerous losing that focus could be. Simply put: In the world of distracted driving, there simply are no winners.

Source: Al Jazeera