Kids can distract drivers even more than cell phones

Usually when we hear "distracted driving" we think cell phones. But there are many types of distractions that can lead to accidents and crashes in Bellingham and Whatcom County. GPS units, Kindles, or other electronic devices are distractions and the focus of Washington's law against driving while under the influence of electronic devices. One thing no one can make illegal to have in the car, however, are children. But they are one of the leading distractions to drivers.

The numbers may surprise you. From this ABC news article on distracted driving:

In a first-of-its-kind study, Australian researchers found that children are 12 times more distracting to the driver than talking on a cell phone while at the wheel. According to their findings, the average parent takes their eyes off the road for a staggering three minutes and 22 seconds during a 16-minute trip.

From this Parents Magazine article, here's a shocking anecdote of how one mother deals with the distractions her kids bring while she's driving:

Anyone who thinks America's distracted driving problem is all about texting teens needs to take a closer look at what's going on in the minivan one lane over. Susan Vosdoganes might be the driver you see. "I'm a horrible offender," admits the Queen Creek, Arizona, mom, who spends two hours in the car each day, driving her kids, 5 and 7, to school. "I find myself driving with my knees while I hand out breakfast and drinks like a flight attendant.
I referee arguments. Once, I even reached back to deflect a carsick kid's vomit out a window with a sun visor. The worst part is that I had a cousin who died in a car crash (she was trying to get something off the floor for her child), and it still hasn't stopped me from making these bad choices."

Ask any new parent what it's like to drive with an infant who can only be soothed in a car with loud music, while the parent driver is suffering from sleep deprivation. Sure, that parent can probably relate to what this mother is saying. But perhaps it is extremely irresponsible - not to mention illegal - to choose to interact with their passengers, no matter their age, in this manner instead of pulling over. I imagine to hear someone's loved died in a crash because the person who hit them didn't want to feed their kids breakfast before loading into the car for school would be absolutely devastating. 

Some of the most common ways children who are in the car can cause or contribute to distracted driving accidents include the following:

  • Misbehavior and roughhousing: When children are present in the back seat of a motor vehicle – and particularly when they are roughhousing or misbehaving – the driver feels compelled to turn around to look at the children or watch them through the rearview mirror. Worse, a driver may automatically want to discipline them or otherwise settle the conflict. This requires that the vehicle driver diverts his or her attention away from the road and increases the likelihood of a motor vehicle accident.
  • Conversations: It is very easy for parents to become distracted with children in the vehicle, especially when they are trying to calm a child who is upset or crying or when they are helping a child to find a lost item or toy in the car while they are trying to drive the vehicle.

However, none of these scenarios mean that the driver must choose to focus on the distraction instead of the act of driving. Certainly, it can be helpful to designate another adult in the car to respond to the kids' wants or needs, assuming there is an adult passenger. That is not always possible. So, drivers must set rules. Think of it this way - most likely, any parent will make an absolute rule that a toddler can only cross the street while holding an adult's hand. This is done for safety, since toddlers are one of the most distractable humans. Rules for riding in the car are also required for everyone's safety. These car rules should be established before getting into the car and communicated clearly.

Here are a few ideas:

  • If someone drops (or throws) something, the driver won't pick it up until the vehicle is parked. Not at lights, not at stoplights, but parked in a safe place off the roadway.
  • Conflicts will only be settled when the vehicle is parked. I think about how my kids' grandparents dad - yes, going that far back - would pull over off the highway when my aunts and uncles argued in the back of their station wagon. Just knowing that rule would be enforced prevented a lot of conflicts!
  • If you have a long trip ahead or can't feed the kids before your drive, consider having a snack close by.
  • For drivers, consider using an app to prevent distractions from your cell phone while you drive. These apps block incoming calls and texts while notifying the caller with an automated message saying you're driving and will get back to them later.

With time, these rules become inherently understood. So, do the boundary-setting initially and firmly, and you'll save yourself a lot of headache - and a potentially devastating car crash.

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