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Healthy Tips

Driving’s Most Dangerous Distraction

Cell Phones and Driving Don’t Mix

Every day, distracted drivers kill nine people and injure more than 1,000.

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) defines distracted driving as “operating a motor vehicle while engaged in any activity that diverts attention from the primary task of driving.” Those activities — all of which dramatically increase the chances of a crash — include eating, smoking and interacting with passengers. They also include today’s biggest distractor: texting or talking on a cell phone.

In fact, at any given moment, 7 percent of drivers are using their cell phones. That equates to approximately 660,000 distracted daytime drivers. And that’s a problem.

3 Driving Must-Haves

“Three different [parts of yourself] are engaged when you are driving,” says Jill Braselton, BSN, RN, lead outreach specialist for the ThinkFirst Injury Prevention Program at Northwestern Medicine. “You are engaged physically, using your hands and feet to drive the vehicle; visually, keeping your eyes on the road and your surroundings; and mentally, making decisions about what you’re doing. And you can lose your engagement in all three of those areas when you are on your cell phone.”

Your brain can’t keep up.
— Jill Braselton, BSN, RN

In fact, the National Safety Council reports that mental activity in the part of the brain that processes moving images decreases by one-third when cell phones are used while driving. And no, hands-free is not risk-free. Just talking on the phone pulls your brain away from focusing on the task at hand.

“Your brain can’t keep up,” Braselton says. “If your hand is on your phone, it’s not on the wheel. If your eyes are on your screen, they’re not on the road. And if you’re involved in a phone conversation, you may ‘look’ but not see that the light has changed.”

Teach Safe Driving Habits Early

Teens in particular are four times more likely to be involved in a car crash as a result of distracted driving, according to IDOT. That’s why Braselton and her ThinkFirst team give approximately 500 to 600 presentations each year to area K – 12 schools, reaching about 25,000 students annually.

Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois, has maintained a local chapter of the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation for almost 30 years, and Northwestern Medicine has recently added chapters at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb, Illinois, and Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Talking to adolescents about safe driving is the central focus of the ThinkFirst for Teens program, and Braselton says that teens’ peer passengers can actually be a bigger distraction than their cell phones. Helping young people understand the importance of good decision-making, especially relative to traffic safety, is part of ThinkFirst’s primary goal to prevent brain and spinal cord injuries.

“Reaching all grade levels with essential safety information reinforces our motto, ‘Use your mind to protect your body,’” Braselton says. “We urge younger kids to be good passengers by encouraging their parents and caregivers to drive distraction-free. It really comes down to being present in the moment.”