Phones distract drivers more than everything else

Q: Why are the police focused on people on their phones, but not on other kinds of distraction? If I can get pulled over for holding my phone, shouldn’t other drivers get pulled over for holding a coffee?

A: If you were going to rank crash risk by the type of distraction involved, what would you put at the top of the list? I’m going to make this easy researchers have already done this for us and the top of the list, by far, is “wireless device tasks.”

Naturalistic driving studies provide some of the best insight into what contributes to a crash or near-crash. In these studies, researchers install cameras and sensors in a bunch of cars, and over the course of a year watch what drivers do. They found that dialing a phone increases the risk of a crash or near crash by more than eight times for novice drivers and more than double for experienced drivers.

For experienced drivers, there’s really no other distraction that compares. There’s a difference between new and experienced drivers when it comes to distractions. A lot of things have a minimal effect on crash rates for experienced drivers; adjusting the AC, changing the radio station, drinking a beverage (non-alcoholic, of course), reaching for an object in the car, looking at something on the roadside — all generally not of great consequence for experienced drivers, but all of them increase crash rates for new drivers, some of them by a lot.

As an example, when a young driver reaches for an object, it increases their odds of an event by eight, while it’s a slight increase for experienced drivers.

You may have seen distractions grouped into three categories: visual, manual, and cognitive. At the risk of overexplaining, visual distractions take your eyes off the road, manual distractions take your hands off the wheel, and cognitive distractions take your brain off the task of driving.

A good driver strives to avoid all of them, but using a phone is one of the few things that can hit all three of those categories at the same time.

My point here is that while anything that takes your attention away from driving is not good, this isn’t a binary problem like, say, seatbelts, where it’s either on or it’s off.

Yes, when you’re driving your focus should be on your primary activity of driving. At the same time, we’ve accepted that turning down the heat is an acceptable secondary action.

All of this is why we have two distracted driving laws; one for your “personal electronic device” and one for “dangerously distracted driving.”

Using your phone while driving is inherently distracting, so it’s a primary violation (meaning if an officer sees you with phone in hand you can get a ticket.) Doing other secondary activities can go either way. Eating M&Ms is probably not a big deal, while eating anything that requires utensils is not OK.

If an officer sees a driver commit a traffic infraction and determines it was distraction-related, that driver can also get a ticket for being dangerously distracted, but it’s a secondary enforcement action (meaning it can’t be the primary reason for the traffic stop.)

For many people, phones have an unrivaled hold on our attention. Not having your phone is almost like not wearing pants. If that’s you, give yourself permission to not respond the moment you hear your phone ding. It’ll help make you a more present driver, and maybe even loosen the grip of that eight-ounce digital leash.

Doug Dahl writes the “Wise Drive” weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.