Dangers of driving and distraction

A mundane legislative tweak to the Road Traffic Act proposed in Parliament this week points to important aspects of driver behaviour that warrant closer scrutiny. People tend to drive in potentially risky ways, scarcely pausing to reflect on their own habits. The rootstock of such behaviour is widespread overconfidence, which researchers have described as "perhaps the most robust finding in the psychology of judgment". This has shown up consistently among drivers surveyed in several nations, whatever their age, gender, educational level and occupation group. The tendency to underestimate risks is also pronounced in the use of mobile devices while driving.

The legal amendment seeks to make it an offence for anyone to operate a mobile phone or tablet in any manner while holding the device and driving. Calling and texting with the phone in one hand and driving with the other is already bookable. Surfing, gaming, downloading and such are to be captured too. The intention is to flag the potential danger of multitasking while at the wheel. Yet, misplaced confidence in one's driving ability might induce the tech-savvy to place the mobile device in a holder or on his or her lap to technically avoid committing the offence, which specifies the holding of a gadget while driving.

Framing the law more strictly might appear oppressive, given the widespread use of gadgets including GPS navigation tools. Hence, alongside incremental changes to traffic laws, there should be a sustained effort to educate drivers.

Essentially, all distractions can be hazardous. Perceptual "blindness" can result when drivers are not adequately processing or remembering what their eyes are taking in because the mind is occupied with another activity; and "tunnel vision" is possible when they stare straight ahead and do not actively look around. In the United States, nine in 10 rear-end collisions took place when the driver behind looked away for a mere three seconds preceding the accident. Texting might take no more than five seconds, but at 90 kmh this would mean travelling the length of a football field without looking at the road.

While hardly anyone would drink from an alcohol bottle and drive, many don't think twice about holding and using a gadget while negotiating busy thoroughfares. Worryingly, seven in 10 here admitted using their phones while driving.

In the US, one in almost four of all traffic crashes involves the use of a mobile phone. The needless deaths caused have spawned social efforts there to promote better habits. A leaf can be taken from this movement to drive home the the dangers that multi-taskers at the wheel are taking, both to themselves and other road users alike.