“Many drivers aren’t aware of how broad distractions can be, so they don’t think of themselves as distracted drivers,” says Robyn Robertson, president and CEO of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). “And even though most provinces have passed laws prohibiting driving while talking on handheld phones, the fact that people are still doing it is only a small part of the problem.”

When your attention is not on the road ahead of you, you’re short-changing yourself of crucial reaction time.

What is distracted driving?

Distracted driving occurs when your attention is diverted from driving by an object, task, person or event — even for a moment. “Since driving is a divided-attention task, which means that you must operate the vehicle and make on-the-spot decisions at the same time, it’s a complicated process that demands a lot of your attention,” says Ms. Robertson. “Unfortunately, drivers are faced with both internal (inside the car) and external (outside the car) distractions.”

So ask yourself if you’re guilty of one of the following while you’re driving:

  • Eating
  • Applying your makeup in the mirror
  • Tuning your radio or adjusting your CD/MP3 player
  • Comforting your upset child in the back seat
  • Setting your GPS, checking a map or written directions
  • Talking to a passenger about something important or emotional
  • Sending a text message or email or talking on your cell phone — even while using a speaker phone or headset
  • Staring at a billboard, pedestrian or someone in a nearby car
  • Rubber-necking while passing a crash on the road or highway

If you answered yes to even one of these scenarios, it’s time to take another look at your driving habits because you are one of the legions of the distracted. And that’s a good thing to know, because recognizing sources of distraction is an important step to take towards practising more attentive — and therefore safer — driving.

Signs of distraction

The consequences of distracted driving are all over the road. According to Robyn Robertson, distracted drivers are more likely to:

  • Slam on the brakes
  • Cut off other vehicles
  • Follow too closely
  • Weave from lane to lane
  • Run red lights
  • Drive over the speed limit
  • Have a delayed reaction time

“Distracted driving will reduce a driver’s awareness, decision-making capabilities and performance,” says Ms. Robertson. “If drivers don’t take preventative measures to avoid distractions behind the wheel, they are putting themselves and others at serious risk.”

Stop the distractions

Next, you need an anti-distraction strategy. Ms. Robertson has a few easy-to-follow tips that will help you do just that:

Acknowledge that you cannot multitask while on the road. “People are only able to focus on one thing at a time, so avoid distractions and keep your attention on driving,” she says. If you focus on more than one thing at once, you can fall victim to cognitive overload.

Drive in the moment. “We’re in our cars so much that driving becomes an automatic behaviour — something we do without thinking,” explains Ms. Robertson. “Most of us have had the experience of driving home and not really remembering part of the ride.” But the road environment can change very quickly. Stay alert and pay attention to what you’re doing and where you are while you’re driving.

Plan ahead. Plan your route, program your GPS device, turn off your phone and set your music before you start the ignition.

Take breaks. “You should take breaks while driving, especially when going for long distances,” she advises. “Stop to eat or have a coffee. You can use this time to check messages and return calls.”

Pull over when you have to. Always trying to make good time or make up for lost time is unrealistic, which means you should pull over if your child or another passenger needs your attention or if you need to make a call. Definitely stop for a break if you’re feeling too tired to drive safely or if you’re finding it hard to hold your focus.

Limit your conversations. “If you have to, tell your passengers that you want to keep the conversation light while you’re driving,” she says. “That way, they know what’s appropriate and what should wait until you’re off the road.” In those cases, when something comes up in conversation that you find distracting, suggest revisiting the topic while taking a break from a long drive or when you reach your destination.

Put your priority on driving. That roadside attraction simply isn’t as important as driving safely. Keep your focus and your attention on the road.