Updated: Oct 19
“Starve your distractions, feed your focus.” ~Unknown
Compared to our ancestors, who spent the majority of their time focused on general survival, we have a ton of available mental energy. Several things we do each day certainly take thought and focus, but we also have a lot of repetitive and habitual tasks that we do on autopilot.
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month
Unfortunately, far too many people place driving into that repetitive and habitual category. They use their driving time to think about other things, or even do other tasks, and allow themselves to be completely distracted from safely driving wherever they need to go. April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and I’d like to challenge all of my readers to permanently recategorize driving as a task that requires thought and focus without distraction.
Driving is Always a Single Task Process
Multitasking has generally been proven as impossible to do. When you believe you are multitasking, what is really happening is that you are alternating focus between multiple activities. At the end, you have completed each task far less efficiently, and probably at poorer quality, than you would have had you focused on each task one at a time.
When you “multitask” while driving, all you are really doing is taking your focus off the road and placing it on other things. You believe that you still have some of your attention on the road, but vehicle crash data shows that it’s not nearly enough for a proper reaction time.
The average car weighs over 2 tons and needs 9 vehicle lengths to come to a stop from just 40 miles per hour. If you consider these facts objectively, it should be completely obvious that driving a car requires full attention at all times. And yet, because we drive every day, often to the exact same places, we lose our perspective that we are managing a serious survival task.
Commit to Zero Driving Distractions
The sneakiest driving distraction is actually your own mind. Daydreaming, or being lost in thought, even beats phone use as a leading cause of crash fatalities from distracted driving. I call it sneaky because we often don’t even realize it’s happening. Our eyes are on the road, our hands are on the wheel, and we appear to be engaged. But then we start thinking, and it turns out that our eyes aren’t really noticing all the things in front of them.
The key to avoiding daydreaming while driving is holding yourself accountable to focusing on that single task. There are a few ways that I coach my students to stay alert to driving:
Observe traffic signs and signals. By looking at the signs on the road, and mentally registering what they mean, you are more likely to incorporate them into your safe driving skills.
Watch the traffic around you. My famous question is to ask students the color of the car behind us. This question jogs their brain and moves their eyes into scanning mode. The color of the car isn’t important. The fact that it is behind you, and that many other cars are around you, is vital to your awareness of traffic conditions. The car in front of you, and the next car in front of that, are also important to watch so that you can anticipate slowing down and other changes.
Take a defensive driving course. Even experienced drivers need refreshers on best practices for safe driving. When was the last time you brushed up on traffic laws, or are you knowingly breaking what you consider to be “no big deal” laws? A driving course will help you remember why safe driving is important so that you can commit to taking your task seriously.
Maintain a safe following distance. We can always assume that at least a few other drivers on the road with you are distracted. By controlling for your own safety with a physical distance between your car and the one in front of you, you will decrease the chance of getting tangled up in someone else’s distraction. Once the car in front of you passes a fixed object, it should take you 3 full seconds to reach it next.
Be an alert passenger. As a passenger, never be afraid to advocate for your own safety and that of others in the car. Encourage your driver to pay attention to the road and call out bad habits. If the driver seems preoccupied or tired, offer to take over so they can get some mental downtime.
The goal of every single car trip is to get from one place to another safely. There is no room to assume that this will happen just because it has happened in the past. Every time you are behind the wheel, you are taking on a brand new task that requires your focus for high-quality completion. Take that seriously, and just drive.
Help New Teen Drivers Prevent Distracted Driving
Teaching your teen to avoid distracted driving may be a challenging topic for you to address. That’s one reason I created the Parent’s Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers. This course will help you coach your teen on safe driving skills that instill awareness and eliminate distractions. Or explore our Teen Driving Instruction lessons, and trust one of our experienced coaches to help your teen how to become a lifelong safe driver.