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What drivers really do behind the wheel

  • Story Highlights
  • Most people doing more than driving behind the wheel
  • Risk of having accidents increases when driver distracted
  • Trying to discipline kids doubles risk of accident
  • Survey: One-third of drivers read on the road
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By Jon Gromer
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(AOL Autos) -- If every accident report filed with insurance agencies were true, America's roads would be a wild freak show of deer large enough to span four lanes and rockslides that toss boulders and trees into the path of traffic about every five minutes.

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A survey found half of drivers admit using a cell phone while behind the wheel.

It seems that, like the cast of 'Heroes,' almost every driver has the secret ability to do complex tasks while driving, and when things go wrong there's a shroud of secrecy. We unearthed information from the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) and, for fun, conducted our own survey. We wanted to determine the number of gifted individuals in the U.S. who are too advanced to just drive when behind the wheel.

The scary thing is that no matter what your dark little secret might be, driver, you are far from alone.

Watching the road can be monotonous when behind the wheel. Some 32 percent of drivers who responded to the NETS survey have an interesting way to liven up the experience a little -- they read! The survey didn't account for whether the driver was reading a map or mystery novels, but according to a recent study completed at Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, it doesn't really matter. Your chances of a near-accident or crash are 3.4 times greater when you try to determine who done it or which way it is to Albuquerque.

Many of us loathe seeing the driver who is trying to steer and stuff their face at the same time. Strangely enough, NETS reports that 70 percent of their surveyed drivers do it. We looked up this habit in the Virginia Tech study to asses the risk of living the meals-on-wheel lifestyle and didn't find it specified. The study does mention that habits requiring multiple steps and/or involving several glances away from the road up the chances for danger by two to three times.

Think those folks you see behind the wheel combing their hair, applying makeup or shaving are part of a very small, lunatic fringe? Think again: 18 percent of respondents to the NETS survey 'fessed up to these behind-the-wheel primping techniques. They also gamble with three times greater odds of being in an accident or narrowly avoiding one.

Another group of drivers facing the same risk factor are the 10 percent who prepare for work while driving. What are they typically doing? You know, work stuff -- reviewing notes, talking on the phone, making lists, or using a computer -- while piloting a two-ton-plus machine during rush hour.

Much more understandable than using a computer while driving, are the poor souls who have to deal with rambunctious kids in the backseat. The NETS survey showed that 39 percent of drivers tend to their children while they drive. Unfortunately, the statistics aren't quite as compassionate. At best, those who look away from the road for long glances at bad behavior double their risk for an accident. Reaching for a moving object while driving increases your chances of a near miss or accident nine times. That same risk applies to swatting at the occasional bee that gets through the window.

Things get interesting when it comes to cell phone usage. Of those surveyed, 51 percent say they use a cell phone when driving, but the specifics of those who use a handheld versus those who use a hands-free system weren't collected. There's a world of difference between the two, right? Wrong.

According to psychologists at the University of Utah, drivers talking on cell phones are as bad as drunks behind the wheel. It seems that the conversation itself gives you the level of impairment of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent -- the legal limit.

This correlates with a recent survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggesting that use of a cell phone while driving, handheld or hands-free, increases your chances fourfold of being in a serious accident. The IIHS survey correlated usage data from cell phone companies with accident information in Australia.

Virginia Tech's study posts a 2.8 factor increase for dialing a handheld cell phone, but talking or listening to a handheld device has a negligible effect on chances for danger.

If it's discovered that the quality of the conversation really impacts safety on the road, we're all in for a shock. Some 90 percent of NETS respondents carry on conversations with passengers when driving. NETS included chatty drivers as a potential distraction factor before reports began surfacing about the impact of cell phone conversations.

According to the Department of Transportation, distracted driving is responsible for 4,000 to 8,000 accidents per day in the United States.

AOL AUTO POLL

15 percent - Talking on a handheld cell phone
70 percent- Talking on a hands-free cell phone
60 percent - Eating
5 percent - Grooming
90 percent - Speeding
50 percent - Driving sleepy (increases crash or near-crash risk
by 4 to 6 times according to Virginia Tech study
3 percent - DUI
21 percent - Managing children
5 percent - Reading
13 percent - Manipulating a GPS device/line-in MP3 player
Number of people surveyed: 1013 Source: AOL Autos

To get the most recent snapshot of what drivers are doing behind the wheel, we polled about a tenth of the number of people NETS did (1,013).

Lastly, here's a glimpse into just how much more needs to be learned about driving distracted. Nearly 84 percent of drivers told NETS that they adjusted their vehicles' controls (air conditioning and audio system) while they drove. You're probably thinking the same thing we did: Of course I do!

Depending on how you make your adjustments, you could face the same risk as those who eat behind the wheel. You increase your chances of danger by two to three times if said adjustments require multiple steps or multiple glances away from the road. Factor in GPS devices, MP3 players and all sorts of other modern equipment making their way into cars, and this risk gains a lot more weight.

Naturally, legislation is trying to catch up to these factors so we don't have to start driving with helmets and protective padding. The Governors Highway Safety Association notes that 14 states and the District of Columbia have laws mandating hands-free cell phone use on the books or regulations regarding their usage. California and Washington will be joining the roster in 2008, and by that time they'll be 17 states (and D.C.) that prohibit teens and inexperienced drivers from adding cell phone calls or texting to their list of distractions. Twenty-eight states are collecting information on cell phone usage in crash data.

For other issues that would be really tough to regulate, there's ongoing research and education initiatives. Those span everything from an NHTSA-funded Harvard study on how to help drowsy drivers to TV spots from agencies like the American Motorcycle Association that warn of the impact of distracted drivers.

Automotive options like the conversation mirror and hands-free in-car communications systems are also the fruit of recent initiatives that look into driver workload metrics -- the study of just how much work drivers are doing besides driving. The conversation mirror, available in many family vehicles, provides a safer alternative to turning around to give the "If you do that one more time ..." stare by keeping the driver's forward vision intact.

Is the public bus or train starting to look a little more attractive to you yet? E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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