Distracted Driving and Brain Injury: A Call to Action

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Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of brain injuries, with distracted driving being one of the main reasons behind them. Distracted driving is any behavior or activity that diverts attention from piloting the vehicle (Sevenish Law, 2020).

Showing a distracted driver

Distracted Driving Statistics

In Canada, distracted driving injury and death rates have surpassed those attributed to drinking and/or substance use and driving, making distracted driving the number one preventative cause of motor vehicular injury and death (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). In 2015, 3,477 were killed in the U.S. in crashes that involved a distracted driver (Mississippi Department of Transportation, n.d.). Around 276,000 people sustain injuries such as traumatic brain injuries due to distracted driving (Bezingue, 2020). 84% of distracted-driving fatalities in the U.S. are classified as carelessness or inattentiveness, and 80% of collisions and 65% of near-crashes are due to driver inattention (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). Distracted drivers as three times more likely to be in a crash than attentive drivers (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017).

Distracted Driving and Brain Injury

Distracted driving has increased pedestrian sidewalk collisions, roadways, and worksites injuries and is a significant safety issue (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). Distracted driving can cause broken bones, internal bleeding, deep wounds, back and neck injuries, and head/brain trauma (Distracted driving is a preventable contributor to brain injuries (The Bratton Firm, P.C. Attorneys at Law., 2018). Motor vehicle crashes are the third leading cause of traumatic brain injuries. Transportation accidents are the leading causes of brain injury deaths and disabilities among adolescents aged 15 to 24 (Texas J-RAC Prevention and Education Committee, 2012; The Law Offices of Diana Santa Maria, P.A., 2021). Distracted driving warrants more interventions to keep people safe and curb brain injury and disability incidence.

showing a distracted driver put on makeup

Why Distracted Driving is Harmful

There are three types of distractions: cognitive, visual, and manual (Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey, 2018). The brain, as incredible of an organ as it is, can only process a certain amount of information at a time (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). Distracted driving introduces additional tasks for the driver and thus the brain to complete, such as talking with passengers, using hands-free devices, daydreaming, staying focused or sober, which ultimately introduce cognitive impairment (Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey, 2018; Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia,  2017; Stavrinos, n.d.). Although the ability to multi-task is a widespread belief, the brain just rapidly switches between activities (Mississippi Department of Transportation, n.d.). Our brains are not meant to multi-task – as tasks compete for the brain’s attention, and our IQ and productivity can drop (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017).

Studies have found that distracted drivers can fail to see and process up to 50% of the total information in their driving environment when they are distracted (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). Visual distractions are things such as a quick glance down at a cell phone, checking out a store or something through the window, checking out yourself in the mirror, etc., and has the potential to drive as if you had your eyes closed (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017; Stavrinos, n.d.). Manual distractions include not keeping both hands on the wheel, hand-held calling, texting, grooming, eating, and drinking (Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey, 2018; Stavrinos, n.d.). Of the three, cognitive distraction is thought to be the most dangerous type of distraction when driving because visual and manual distractions are types of cognitive distractions (Bezingue, 2020; Stavrinos, n.d.). 

What is Distracted Driving?

Distracted Driving can look like:

  • Texting
  • Using a cell phone or smartphone
  • Talking to passengers
  • Eating
  • Adjusting the radio, CD player, or MP3 player
  • Using GPS or navigation device 
  • Applying makeup or grooming
  • Reading, including maps
  • Reaching for objects in the car
  • Watching a video
  • Attending to children (Texas J-RAC Prevention and Education Committee, 2012; Sevenish Law, 2020)

All of these can increase the odds of getting into a car accident (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017).

Cell Phone Use and Driving

According to the Canadian Automobile Association, cell phones are the most common distraction for drivers (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). 

  • In the U.S., 660,000 drivers use or manipulate electronic devices while driving at any given daylight moment (Mississippi Department of Transportation, n.d.), which reduces the amount of brain activity needed for driving by 37%.
  • Talking on a hand-held phone makes a person four times more likely to get in a crash (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). 
  • A 2010 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found that drivers who engage in texting while driving are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car crash or near-crash event with non-distracted drivers (Northern Brain Injury Association | British Columbia, 2017). 
  • Sending or receiving a text can take a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, which is the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field, blind if one was going 55 MPH (Texas J-RAC Prevention and Education Committee, 2012). 

It is important to note that these statistics may be underestimated due to the lack of reporting of cell phone use and car crashes (National Safety Council, 2021).

Distracted Driving Consequences

People must understand the risks and consequences associated with distracted driving. A survey of 2,0001 registered drivers 25+ years old in the U.S. found that people were more willing to wear a mask to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus than obey their state law preventing cell phone use. This shows that people are more likely to take immediate measures to ensure their own safety but are less likely to follow behaviors that can benefit the societal level (Bezingue, 2020). We must change this culture. 

No matter how many cars are equipped with hands-free set-up or other “Accommodations,” drivers need to take the proper precautions and responsibility to drive safely, or people can end up with outcomes such as brain injuries, lifelong conditions, and/or death (Bezingue, 2020). Additionally, legislators and employers must enact safer driving policies to curb the number of distractions while driving (Bezingue, 2020).

Avoiding Distracted Driving

Here are some ways that distracted driving can be avoided:

  • Turn off cell phones, or place them out of reach to avoid calling, picking up calls, or texting
  • If a passenger is present, ask them to handle any calls or texts
  • Wait to answer calls until driving is complete
  • Pre-program radio station for easy access and arrange music (aux chords, MP3 players, CDs, tapes, etc.) in an accessible spot
  • Adjust mirrors, heat, and A/C before traveling, or ask a passenger to assist 
  • If driving alone, map out routes in advance, or pull over to check directions. If going with a passenger, have them co-pilot and help navigate you to your destination 
  • Try to avoid eating and drinking when drinking unless necessary. Avoid messy foods that can cause distractions and make sure that food and drink items are secured
  • If you have children, teach them good traveling behavior. Children may be very distracting for drivers
  • Stop passengers from conducting distracting behavior
  • When making a call, ask if the person is driving. If they are, ask them to call you back at a safer time (Texas J-RAC Prevention and Education Committee, 2012).

Power of Patients is committed to provide education around brain injuries and raise awareness of the struggles of brain injury survivors and caregivers. If you are a victim of distracted driving and now live with chronic symptoms, sign up for our free symptom and trigger-tracking Dashboard at powerofpatients.com to get started on taking back control of your life today!

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