Although anyone can get distracted while driving, some people — particularly young men, frequent drivers and people with extroverted or neurotic personalities — are more prone than others, according to a Norwegian study published last Friday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The study also found that making people aware of what they can personally do to reduce their own distracted driving is not enough to get them to stop doing it.
That’s discouraging, for distracted driving is a very real danger on the road. As little as two seconds of inattention — say, answering a cellphone, or fiddling with the radio or taking a sip of coffee — plays a part in at least 12 percent of motor vehicle crashes worldwide, the authors of the study report.
Here in the United States, 14 percent of motor vehicle crashes — and 10 percent of all fatal crashes — are distraction-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Each day, nine people die on U.S. roads and an additional 1,071 are injured in crashes involving distracted driving.
Most people believe, however, that distracted driving is a problem for other people, not themselves, particularly if they use a hands-free phone or other technology while driving — technology they mistakenly believe doesn’t distract them from their driving long enough to be dangerous.
As I’ve reported here before, research has shown that distraction caused by hands-free technologies lingers for up to 20 seconds after the driver finishes interacting with the device. Even while driving at a relatively slow speed of 25 mph, that’s long enough to take you the distance of almost three football fields.
For the current study, researchers Ole Johansson and Aslak Fyhri of the Institute of Transport Economics in Oslo, Norway, examined the link between distracted driving and gender, age and personality.
The researchers say this is the first study that has looked at how personality traits affect driver distraction.
The researchers surveyed hundreds of Norwegian high school students and adults about their driving behavior. The survey included 11 questions designed to measure driver-related distracted behavior during the previous two weeks. The participants were also given standard tests for measuring the “Big Five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.
The study found that age and gender were the most prominent predictors of distraction.
“I found that young men were among the most likely to report distraction,” said Johansson, in a released statement. “Others more prone to distraction include those who drive often, and those with neurotic and extroverted personalities.”
Not surprisingly, people who thought that distracted behavior while driving was socially acceptable or who felt they had no choice about doing it were also more likely to report being inattentive while behind the wheel.
Groups that were the least likely to report distracted behavior were women, particularly older ones, and people who felt they could control such behavior.
Interestingly, among both the students and the adults, the most commonly reported driver-distractions were operating the radio, followed by eating or drinking. Other top distractions included reaching for an object in the car, answering phone calls and handling navigational equipment.
Johansson and Fyhri also looked at whether an intervention to reduce distracted driving could reduce the behavior. They gave people information about driving distractions and then had them create a plan for how they would more safety react in such situations. A second control group was given the information, but not asked to create any plans.
The researchers then surveyed the participants two weeks later. Both the intervention and the control group reported a similar decline in distracted driving — a sign that the surveys themselves may have had some impact, but not the intervention.
This study had limitations, of course. Most notably, it involved only Norwegian drivers, who may behave differently on the road from drivers, say, in the United States. The study also relied on self-reported data, which can be inaccurate. Indeed, it’s likely that the study’s participants underreported their own distracted driving behavior, as people are much more likely to recognize such behavior in other people than in themselves.
Still, the study underscores the need to educate people about the dangers of distracted driving and to develop interventions that will actually get drivers to change their behavior.
“Tailored interventions to reduce driver distraction could focus on at-risk groups, such as young males with bad attitudes to distracted driving and a low belief that they can control their distraction,” said Johansson.
What everybody can do
But that doesn’t mean people not in those groups are off the hook. Distracted driving is a problem for all drivers. Here are five reminders from Consumer Reports on how you can ensure that you’re not contributing to the distracted-driving problem:
Silence the phone. It’s very tempting to respond to the text alerts, calls, and other notifications that sound off while you’re driving, so reduce the urge by putting the phone on silent.
Map it out. Make sure you program the GPS before head to your destination. Use the voice function, so you don’t need to look at the portable device or smartphone to know which direction to go.
Groom at home. Give yourself plenty of time in the morning to get ready, so you don’t have to apply makeup or shave in the driver’s seat. Your eyes should be looking at the rearview mirror at the other cars, not at yourself.
Familiarize yourself with the car’s controls. New cars often have sophisticated, or overly clever, controls that require some getting use to while driving. … With any infotainment system with touch screens, make sure you know how to use it or better yet, take some time to set up the radio stations or streaming music, climate, and other controls before you head out.
Skip the drive through. Resist the temptation to eat or drink (especially open hot coffee) in the car. Not only could you spill something or burn yourself, but you won’t save much time if you are working to hold a burger, soda, and trying to steer all at the same time. Pull over, eat at home before, or tell your stomach to wait until you get to your destination.
FMI: You can read Johansson and Fyhri’s study on the Frontiers in Psychology website.