On a hot summer afternoon, Kyle Exume is doing his utmost to distract me while I drive, but it's just not working.
I'm feeling completely focused behind the wheel of Black Betty – that's the name my driving instructor has given his Toyota Prius.
As I go through the circuit at the Young Drivers of Canada distracted driving challenge, Exume tries to throw off my focus, hoping I won't notice the biker in my blind spot, the speed limit sign or the car flashing its hazard lights. He gives me distracting tasks – "Find a country music station" – and asks me questions about my job and my summer plans. He even makes a crack about my age – it seems he was still in diapers when I got my licence – but he just can't shake me.
What Exume doesn't realize is that I've had a lot of practice with demanding passengers. "If you really want to distract me," I offer, "you should put my kids in the back seat."
I'd like to see how well my young instructor dealt with that sort of challenge. His test is a peaceful Sunday drive in comparison.
When it comes to dealing with distractions, age and experience matter, says Charles Shrybman, a senior regional trainer at Young Drivers of Canada.
For experienced drivers, simply talking to passengers or listening to the radio creates no statistical increase in collisions. While experienced drivers will slow down and avoid changing lanes when distracted, teenage drivers tend to speed up, Shrybman says.
"It's a totally scary phenomenon because a novice driver needs way more mental attention just to drive safely than an experienced driver does. For a teenage driver with a passenger in the car, crash rates go up astronomically." With one passenger, the chance of a collision doubles, Shrybman says. With two or more passengers, it increases 500 per cent.
Even more dangerous are hand-held devices that require what Shrybman calls "manual-visual subtasks," such as scrolling or pushing buttons. They create "inattentional blindness" in all drivers, regardless of experience, because the human brain cannot effectively multitask, he says. "If your attention is focused on something, you're effectively blind to all sorts of things that are happening right in your field of vision."
Despite statistics that prove distracted driving is dangerous, people tend to overestimate their own skills behind the wheel, Shrybman says. Half of drivers polled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said sending a text or e-mail while driving would not affect their own performance on the road, yet 90 per cent said they would feel unsafe being driven by someone who was distracted in such a way. Distraction is a factor in 25-30 per cent of collisions in Ontario.
Participating in the distracted driving challenge causes me to reflect on how my driving habits have evolved. Years ago, I had a close call in which, distracted by my cellphone, I failed to check my blind spot before changing lanes. Thanks to the attention of the other driver, I narrowly avoided a collision. It was a wake-up call, so to speak, that prompted me to give up using my phone while driving, long before it became illegal to do so.
That was one decision among many that have helped make me a better, more mature driver over the years.
As I complete the distracted driving challenge, my young instructor informs me that although I was one of the slowest drivers in the group, I've achieved the top score, and I think he's a little impressed. Not bad for an old lady, eh?
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