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Roadblocks: The Dangerous Driving Habits We Can’t Shake

When I pull up to a stoplight these days, I’m appalled more times than I care to count by what I witness going on in the cars around me—that is, absolutely nothing to do with safe driving. To my left, there’s a woman who didn’t wake up for work in time to put on her makeup at home, so she’s applying mascara in her rearview mirror with her mouth hanging open like a stunned animal. To my right, there’s a guy who’s flagrantly disobeying California law by gabbing directly into his cell phone. And when the light turns green, I inevitably have to slam on my brakes, narrowly avoiding rear-ending the car in front of me because its driver has failed to use his turn signal to indicate that he’s actually going left. 

Americans’ driving has gotten so reckless that if the San Francisco Police Department ever decides to stage a sting operation at the busy intersection near my house, the city jail will be overflowing with vehicular maniacs by week’s end. And these errant deeds aren’t happening only in my town—they span a broad geographical and generational range. Putting on lipstick at a red light is bad enough, but when a driver commits such an offense in a moving car, it can result in tickets, accidents, and even fatalities. If you’re going to own an automobile, you owe it to yourself—not to mention the people you share the road with—to avoid these bad habits when you get behind the wheel. 

Hang Up and Drive
By far the most widespread threat on the road, talking and texting on cell phones while driving has taken on the proportions of a nationwide epidemic. A September 2009 Washington Post article reported that close to 90 percent of Americans own cell phones, and that eight out of ten of these individuals talk on their phones while driving. Even in states that have passed laws prohibiting cell phone use without hands-free devices on the road, some drivers refuse to comply—and all that yakking has far graver consequences than overages in plan minutes. 

An alarming 2005 University of Utah study found that drivers talking on cell phones reacted 18 percent more slowly to the sight of illuminated brake lights in front of them. In the journal Human Factors, which published the study’s results, psychology professor David Strayer explained, “If you put a twenty-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as [those of] a seventy-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone. It’s like instantly aging a large number of drivers.” Worse, in 2002, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that drivers’ cell phone use resulted in approximately 2,600 deaths in the United States each year—and that figure is surely even steeper in 2010. 

The situation has become so dire that on September 30 and October 1, 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation hosted a summit about “distracted driving” resulting from this behavior. It may be tempting to catch up with long-distance friends during your weekly commute, but even if you’re using a hands-free device during your calls, you’re likely not as focused on the road as you should be. So unless you’re in the midst of a 911-level emergency, make sure your hands stay off the keypad.  

Crash and Turn
Using a turn signal when you change lanes on a busy freeway or make a left-hand turn into traffic is as easy as flipping on a light switch, yet a full 57 percent of Americans admitted to not employing this simple device while driving, according to a 2006 survey Response Insurance conducted. That’s right—these respondents weren’t just absentminded; they consciously chose not to signal. They justified their negligence by saying that they changed lanes too frequently to switch on their blinkers every time (12 percent), that signaling is “unimportant” (11 percent), that they didn’t signal because other drivers didn’t (8 percent), and—despite the millisecond it takes to activate the signal—that they simply didn’t have enough time (a staggering 42 percent). And 7 percent went so far as to make the disturbing claim that driving without signaling “adds excitement” to the act. 

The risks inherent in signal-less turning are obvious; accidents happen all the time because someone slows suddenly and veers across an intersection without indicating his intentions to the drivers around him, or because someone changes lanes abruptly and forces all the cars behind her to screech to a halt in attempts to avoid a collision. A lifesaving practice that’s much simpler than tying your shoes shouldn’t be optional and certainly isn’t “exciting”—so have your left hand at the ready whenever you’re not planning to go straight for the next hundred miles. 

Culinary Caution
If you’ve ever tried to guide your dinner directly into your mouth without looking down at the food, you know how difficult it is to eat that way. Now add variables such as scalding liquids and non-spillproof containers and envision that same scenario taking place as you operate a moving vehicle, and you’re looking at a recipe for disaster. 

Hagerty Classic Insurance researched the ten foods that are most likely to impede drivers’ concentration and performance, and discovered that hot coffee tops the list for its potential to spill at the slightest provocation, especially when a car passes over a bump in the road. Furthermore, if the liquid burns the driver, he’s likely to release the steering wheel and lose control of the vehicle. Other offenders include jelly donuts (huge splatter potential), hamburgers, and other fried foods (when your hands are covered with grease from McDonald’s, it’s not exactly easy to grip the wheel if you have to make a sharp turn). Drive-throughs may be quick and convenient, but when your safety is on the line, isn’t it worth it to get out of the car for ten minutes and eat inside the restaurant? 

Drivers’ Ed
In 2003, CNN released the results of a nationwide poll of 1,100 licensed drivers, ages sixteen and up, about driving safety. More than 90 percent of the respondents confessed to having engaged in risky driving behavior—largely cell phone use, eating, and speeding—in the past six months, and 67 percent said they believed people today drive more dangerously than they did in the past. Yet the very people who acknowledged feeling unsafe were exacerbating the situation by engaging in shockingly perilous activities: 30 percent of drivers polled said they ran red or yellow lights, and 14 percent said they read while driving. Is your book really more valuable than human life? The next time you head out in your car, keep your eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel, and remember this: one tiny misstep can cause severe and irreversible damage.

Updated December 23, 2010