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Staying Safe on the Road

April 19, 2022

When you’re trying to find a parking spot in a busy lot, looking for a street address or navigating a winding road, what’s the first thing you do?

The answer might not be immediately obvious, but in that moment nearly everyone will subconsciously do the same thing: turn down the car stereo volume.

In fact, the seemingly odd impulse to turn down the volume to “see” better is so common it’s sparked a few internet memes, like this one here. Yet despite how amusing it might seem, it’s actually an important indicator that we’re not as focused on the road as we should be.

“You're trying to reduce the extra input that your brain is trying to process by turning down the volume,” Sarah Davidson, MSOTR/L, CDRS - a driving rehabilitation and transportation specialist at Craig - says. “So it really should be noted that listening to music is a distraction.”

Sarah Davidson, MSOTR/L, CDRS - Craig Hospital Driving Rehab and Transportation Specialist

For Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Sarah – who’s been a part of Craig’s Driving and Adaptive Transportation Program for 10 years – talked about driving habits that many of us have adopted that interfere with our ability to pay attention on the road and ways we can reduce these distractions.

On average, about 40% of Craig's spinal cord and brain injury patients sustain their injuries in a car accident, so it’s a worthwhile reminder that distracted driving is dangerous, and – as much as we’d like to think this isn’t true – our brain isn’t actually capable of processing more than one task at a time, meaning anything that pulls your focus away from the road is creating unsafe driving conditions for you and everyone around you.

“Driving is one of the most cognitively demanding tasks that you can do in a day,” Sarah said. “And because you do it every single day, it becomes second nature. We don't consciously realize the difficulty of the task, but every single second you’re driving, you are making decisions. You’re checking if you're centered in the lane, you’re taking in the information of oncoming cars, the road signs, how bright the sun is, and more. Since it’s not a novel task, you become less aware of all those decisions, but it’s important to appreciate the fact that this is a very high risk activity.”

When you add in distractions to driving, like talking on the phone or to a passenger, adjusting the thermostat, or changing the volume of the radio, your brain is constantly switching back and forth between tasks. An even worse habit, Sarah notes, is texting because you’re removing your eyes from the road and at least one hand from the steering wheel. In fact, if you’re traveling at 55 mph and look away for five seconds, you’ve traveled the entire length of a football field without watching the road.

What can you do to reduce the number of distractions while driving? Sarah says just being aware that your choices could have an impact on other people’s lives can be helpful to keep in mind the next time you get behind the wheel.

“Please know that when you’re driving a car, you're responsible for your actions and the impact that a vehicle could make on someone else's life,” Sarah says. “Check your behaviors and implement strategies so that you can remove those distractions while you're driving. There are plenty of apps out there that can silence your phone once it senses that the car is in motion. There are even ones that can send a text message so that if you receive a text while you’re driving, it automatically responds and says that you’ll respond later. You can put your phone in the back seat or put it somewhere you can't reach. When it's too close to you, you just have that urge to grab it. It’ll positively impact safety if you can make those small changes in your day.”

Click here for more information on distracted driving and ways to stay alert on the road.