Distracted Driving Q&A

With Dr. Paul Atchley, eDriving’s Brain Scientist Advisor

Paul Atchley, PhD, is the University of South Florida’s Senior Associate Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Studies. As a Professor of Psychology, he specializes in research in cognitive factors, including the implications of multitasking on driving.

Send your distracted driving questions to three60@edriving.com.

Q: Are audio books while driving considered a distraction?

A: Audio books, or anything passive and auditory, pose no risk unless they are so engaging a driver can’t ignore them, such as a sporting event you are REALLY into, and can even be a benefit of they help a driver stay mentally alert and engaged.

Q: My manager often calls me when he/she knows I am driving – what can I do?

A: This is a common question. Ideally, your company would have a mobile phone policy restricting phone use while driving. In the absence of this, I would recommend raising the issue with your manager face-to-face. Tell him/ her that you are not prepared to use your phone while driving because it puts you – and other people around you – at risk. You could agree an arrangement for scheduling calls at certain times, when you know you won’t be driving. Or you could agree that you will set your phone to voicemail while you’re on the road but will check it for messages periodically (when stopped in a safe place) and will return calls as soon as you can.

Q: What’s the best way of encouraging my 18-year-old daughter not to use her phone while driving? I’m quite sure she wouldn’t make a call herself while driving but the pressure to respond to messages quickly is huge! How can I encourage her to resist when she hears a notification while driving?

A: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is well documented, especially in relation to teenagers. These days, young people are almost permanently connected to their phones and often find it difficult not to check and respond to notifications right away. An important first step is to set a good example yourself by putting your own phone away while driving. This shows that it CAN be done! Speak to your teenager about the dangers associated with distracted driving and let her know why it’s so important to be alert to what everyone else on the road around her is doing. Agree a routine that your daughter will stick to while driving, such as putting her phone in the trunk and replying to messages once she’s out of her vehicle. Finally, there must be consequences for your teen if they choose to use their phone while driving. Sadly, for a teen “addicted” to their phone, it might only be the fear of significant consequences (losing the phone and/or driving privileges) that can stop this risky behavior.

Q: I spend a lot of my day on the road for work, traveling between appointments. I often need to make phone calls during this time as otherwise I wouldn’t get to make them at all; or wouldn’t manage to get to all of my appointments. I always use hands-free but I worry that I’m still using my phone more than I should be while driving. What can I do?

A: Ask yourself this question. If you’re using only half your brain during phone calls while driving, are these calls really as productive as you think? If you’re struggling to fit in phone calls around your other commitments I’d recommend speaking to your manager to adjust your schedule. This might involve scheduling an hour in the morning for calls before getting on the road or taking a break from driving midway through the morning or afternoon to call customers. Doing both at the same time has a negative impact on both, and when it comes to driving, this has a significant impact on your safety. If a CEO can put down their phone while driving, you can, too.

Q: I know I should put my phone out of sight while driving but I’m worried that I might miss an urgent call about one of my kids or family members. What’s your advice?

A: It’s unrealistic to attempt to be reachable 24/7. Planning ahead can help prevent you from feeling you’re the only one able to deal with a certain situation. If your kids are at school, make sure the school has several emergency numbers such as a partner, grandparent or family friend. If your kids are out with friends, make sure they have the number of other people they can contact if they need anything. If you know you’ll be driving, let them know in advance and tell them you might not be able to answer straight away if they call. Let them know who else they should contact in the event of an emergency. Also, think about the number of times you have had a genuine emergency call either about or from your child. The chances are that most conversations can wait!

Q: If I stop driving to return a phone call I’m more likely to make myself late for my next appointment and end up rushing. Yet, if I answer using hands-free I’ll be on time. Isn’t it better to avoid rushing by taking the call while driving?

A: It’s important to realize that these are not the only two options. I would never advocate rushing while driving but neither would I advocate making a hands-free call to avoid it. Planning is the solution to avoiding both of these risky behaviors. If you know you need to make a phone call mid-way through your trip, leave earlier to allow time to stop off. Even if you don’t know you’ll need to make a call, but you usually receive calls while driving, consider leaving earlier and setting aside 30 minutes mid-way through your trip to return calls. Better yet, set up a “do not disturb” option on the phone, with a voice message to call back immediately if the call is critical, so you know any call that gets through might require you to pull over. Most calls can wait.

Q: Does using my GPS count as distracted driving?

A: Used correctly, GPS can also help you to avoid distracted driving by helping you to find your destination more easily. The key is to set it up before you drive and refrain from interacting with it while you’re driving.

Q: How is using a phone while driving any different to eating a sandwich or having a drink while driving?

A: Engaging in any secondary activity while driving is potentially distracting though some simple behaviors like drinking coffee are routine and don’t take much of your attention. Using a phone, however, is distracting for multiple reasons. There’s not only the physical distraction of holding your phone in your hand (if using a hand-held device) but also the mental distraction, which is actually more problematic.

Q: If hands-free calls are so dangerous, why isn’t it illegal to use a hands-free phone while driving?

A: In some countries and states a driver could be prosecuted for using a hands-free device if they are involved in a collision while distracted, whether hand-held or hands-free. Laws are not a measure of risk, but a measure of public will.

Q: My new car has technology that lets me make phone calls without pressing a button and to listen to text messages without looking at my phone. If the manufacturers put this technology in my vehicle, surely it is safe?

A: Most technology features in cars are not evaluated or regulated for their effect on the driver. The guidelines are very loose, and they generally do not keep up with the changing technologies. Vehicle manufacturers are constantly developing safety technology improvements such as automatic braking systems that help to make drivers safer. But communications and infotainment enhancements are generally designed to make the driver more “enjoyable”, not particularly any safer.

Q: My sales role means that I really need to answer calls from customers, even if I’m driving. I think it would look bad on the company if I didn’t get back to them for several hours, and I’m sure my manager wouldn’t be happy! What advice do you have?

A: Actually, the opposite is true. People make the mistake of thinking they’re more productive if they can engage in phone conversations at the same time as driving. But do you think it looks good to a customer if you’re only using half your brain during a conversation? There is no good business case for employees to use their phones while driving. It hurts productivity, it decreases safety, and it sends a message to employees that leadership doesn’t care about them.

Q: I’m required in a conference call every Monday morning but I also need to be on the road at that time to travel to appointments. I don’t think I have an option but to use my phone while I’m driving. Can you help?

A: You need to speak to your manager about your schedule as it’s impossible to be in two places at once. Your conference call should be considered a “meeting”. It should be thought of in the same way as a face-to-face meeting and you should never be expected to be in a meeting while you’re driving. Your schedule should only ever involve one task at a time.