19 – Distracted Driving—It’s All In Your Mind

Cognitive Distraction

April 21, 2014 | Posted in Distracted Driving, Podcast Episodes

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April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month and this episode is part three of a four-part series examining distracted driving, and what we need to do to be safer drivers.

Russ Martin, State Manager at AAA

Russ Martin, State Manager at AAA

Recent research of cognitive distractions found a person’s mental focus does impact driving. Russ Martin, Manager of State Relations at AAA discusses the research, what it means and provides tips on how you can be a safer driver.

Cognitive Distractions are Real

Distracted driving comprises one or more aspects: manual, visual, and/or cognitive. A cognitive or mental distraction has been difficult to study because it all happens within the brain.

Hands-free cell phones, Voice-to-Text software are designed to make it easier to be connected with the world around us. Yet, these same helpful technologies put us in danger when we drive.

Partnering with researchers at the University of Utah, AAA found a way to look into our brains and determine that hands-free technologies used in the car dangerously divert our attention from the vital task of driving.

Groundbreaking Research

Cognitive Distractions

Getting wired up for the research

For the research, participants wore a skullcap with electrodes attached that were wired to a monitor allowing researchers to examine their brain waves and study mental workload. Participant then ‘drove’ in a simulator or a specially equipped car on the road, performing a number of activities that include:

  • Changing the radio station
  • Using a cell phones, both hand-held and hands-free
  • Sending an email with voice-activated technologies, and
  • Doing a math problem.

Reaction time and eye movements were captured with cameras and other electronic devices.

In Phase One of the two-phase study, researchers created a rating scale for cognitive distractions using a scale of one to five, with five being the most distracting type of activity. Changing the radio station was determined to be a one, the least cognitively distracting activity. The use of speech-to-text technologies, such as features allowing drivers to respond to text messages or emails, was rated three, indicating a high level of mental distraction. Phase two of the study is taking an in depth look at the voice-activated technologies and examining what can be done to make them safer.

Creating New Risks?

Automakers are designing devices that allow individuals to keep their hands on the steering wheel, and use voice commands to interact with the car. But this is not limited to carmakers. For example, Apple just came out with Apple CarPlay calling it “a safer way to use your iPhone in the car,” and Google has developed Google Glasses. Companies are reducing manual distractions; but increasing cognitive distractions. This does not make it safer.

Cognitive Distractions

Customers are asking for the technology

Cognitive distractions are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous. Once both phases of the study are done, it is hoped automakers and others will take the research into account in their designs.

However, it is important to acknowledge that others also share the responsibility in creating these new risks; and that is all of us. Customers are asking carmakers for these gadgets, the companies oblige us, and then we use them. A high percentage of AAA members (and non-AAA members) believe distracted driving is dangerous, but still they do it. Driving while chatting on a cell phone (hand-held or hands-free) or sending a text message is distracted driving. It’s a “Do as I say, Not as I Do” attitude. As Russ states, we have “heroic” assumptions of our own driving abilities.

Distracted driving kills and it injures. It isn’t selective, choosing only women, or only men. It doesn’t distinguish between the poor and the rich, or the young and the old. It is an all-encompassing killer. Fortunately, there are ways to help protect you from this killer.

What Can You Do?

First and foremost, when you are in the driver’s seat, the most important thing you can do is focus on the driving. Keep in mind:

  • When driving, it is not a time to stow away loose items, to dress or to groom.
  • Before driving somewhere, make sure your children are secure with their safety belts fastened, and pets are protected with a harness or other safety device.
  • If you have a passenger in the car with you while driving, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Eating while driving is distracted driving, so the best course is to always stop and eat. But if you’re going to do it, eat smart snacks such as chips or carrots. Don’t eat food that creates a mess or is difficult to eat, like soup or something that requires two hands.

As Russ stated, there is so much that can be done beforehand to square away everything before even pulling away from the curb. Being proactive could save your life and the lives of your passengers.

What are you doing to reduce your distractions?

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15 – Child Safety Seats: Are Yours Properly Installed?


March 15, 2014 | Posted in Child Safety Seats, Podcast Episodes

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Jennifer Huebner-Davidson

Three out of 4 child safety seats are not properly installed.  Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, Manager of Traffic Safety for AAA and an expert on child safety seats, discusses some of the common mistakes and what you can do to make sure your child’s seat is properly installed.

Why Child Safety Seats?

Car and truck seat belts are designed for adults.  For the best protection, the lap belt should be low and snug across the hips and the shoulder portion must be snug across the chest, away from the neck and face.  For many adults, this is not a problem.  However, for young children, adult seat belts never fit properly.  With an incorrect fit, a child is at serious risk.  A child safety seat or booster seat remedy this problem.

Child safety seats are now an accepted feature when a child is in a car.  Organizations across the globe call for their use. The U.N. Decade of Action for Road Safety includes child safety seats as an important element in reducing the number of global road fatalities. Parents everywhere are purchasing them and understand the need to have them in the car.

Common Mistakes

The issue now is that many child seats are not properly installed.  A few common mistakes include:

  • Using the lower anchors and the car’s seat belts in combination to secure the child safety seat.
  • Not using a tether when indicated by the manual.
  • Placing a child safety seat in the center of the back seat using the lower anchors from the two outside seats.
  • Not considering the combined weight of the child and seat when using the anchor system.

Be sure to have a Child Safety Seat Technician check your installation

Parents are obviously trying to install the seats properly, but mistakes are being made.  Some times it is an over abundance of caution creating an issue.  For example, using the lower anchors and the seat belt in combination to secure a child car seat would make you think that it is increasing the safety potential. However, there is no research that it is improves a child’s safety and there are concerns it could create problems. Seat belts and the lower anchor system are designed to work independently.

In this episode, Ms. Huebner-Davidson also provides guidance on the type of child car seat that should be used and when to change to a new car seat.  Ultimately, as she indicates, one should always first read the Child Safety Seat Instruction Manual and then the vehicle manual.

Proper Installation

Three tips for achieving a successful installation include:

  • Read the Child Safety Seat User Manual
  • Read your vehicle manual
  • Get the seat checked at a Car Seat Check Site

Getting an inspection at the car seat check site allows an expert to determine if the seat is properly installed. If it isn’t, the technician will show you what is incorrect and how to fix it so when you are on your own, you’ll have the knowledge and ability to install it correctly.  Click here to find the closest car seat check site to you.


Remember that a booster seat is just as important.

Once your child is old enough and according to the user manual for the child safety seat, the next step is to move to a booster seat.  This will help the adult seat belt to properly fit your child.  Finally, when your child grows old enough to leave the booster seat behind, remember, they still need to wear a seat belt and ride in the back seat.

As your child grows, providing her or him as much protection as possible from injuries in a car crash requires three steps:

  1. Purchase the correct child safety seat
  2. Properly install it
  3. Use it

You have taken the time to purchase the seat and to install it – make sure to do that last step, and use it.  You never know about the driving skills of the person next to you, or if they may be texting while driving or driving impaired.  Remember, once you have installed the seat, it should be used Every Ride, Every Time.  Using these three steps can help ensure your child has the life he or she was meant to have.

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14 – Drowsy Driving: Take the Time to Sleep

March 1, 2014 | Posted in Drowsy Driving, Podcast Episodes

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“Anyone who is human and gets behind the wheel [of a car] should worry about it.”  NTSB Board Member Mark Rosekind speaking on drowsy driving.

Dr. Mark Rosekind, NTSB Board Member

Dr. Mark Rosekind, NTSB Board Member

“There will be sleep enough in the grave.” How many times have we heard someone say something similar, implying that he or she doesn’t need or have time for sleep?  Ben Franklin made that statement over 200 years ago and it is still used today, sometimes as a badge of honor.  In today’s culture, with many of us traveling in large and potentially deadly weapons on a road or highway, mixing the lack of sleep with driving is a deadly combination. However, there are practical steps each of us can take to avoid these dangers, with acknowledgement of the existence of drowsy driving being the first.

Dr. Mark Rosekind, Board Member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and one of the world’s foremost human fatigue experts, examines the fallacy that we can put sleep off to a later time.  As human beings, we are hardwired for sleep. We have to breath, we have to eat, we have to drink, and we have to sleep. It is a biological requirement for our survival.  Starting with that premise, Dr. Rosekind discusses:

  • How much sleep we need
  • What happens when we don’t get a sufficient amount of sleep
  • How fatigue plays a role in drowsy driving, and
  • What we can do about driving and fatigue

Having a “Sleep Debt”

As we age the amount of sleep needed each night changes.  What many people do not understand is that teens actually need 9¼ hours of sleep, not the typical 8 hours mentioned.  What is especially concerning is that  in high school teenagers get on average 6½ hours of sleep.  They may think that they are 90 minutes short on sleep, but they are actually more than two hours below what is needed.  Adults need 7-9 hours or an average of 8 hours.  This is  true as we age and become senior citizens, although in our later years our sleep patterns are broken up.  We still need the 8 hour average, however, it is not as refreshing thus it is often harder to get a good night’s sleep. Many retirees enjoy a mid-day nap to help make up for the lost overnight sleep. This is why teens and senior citizens are considered higher risks for drowsy driving.

Drowsy Driving

Sleep is a human necessity.

When we don’t get sufficient sleep, we start to build up a “sleep debt.” One night of poor sleep, and our abilities are affected.  If we don’t get sufficient sleep a second night, the sleep debt increases. Go a third night, and it continues to accumulate.  Go three nights with 2 hours lack of sleep each night, and the sleep debt is up to 6 hours.  In a single night, losing 2 hours of sleep can result in a person acting as if they were at a .05 BrAC (Breath Alcohol Content).[1] With a sleep debt, our attention, reaction time and decision making are all significantly effected by as much as 20-50%. A slower reaction time or making a poor decision means not reacting to the brake lights in front of us or seeing the traffic light turning red. Falling asleep while driving can have devastating consequences.

Drowsy Driving’s Impact is Underestimated

How dangerous is drowsy driving?  There are estimates in the U.S. that annually we could be looking at a million or more crashes or near crashes – 20% of all crashes could be due to fatigue.  All the experts agree that the number of crashes and fatalities due to fatigue is underestimated.

According to the Automobile Association of America (AAA) two out of every five drivers (41.0%) reported having fallen asleep or nodding off while driving, and that one in four reported that they had fallen asleep between the hours of noon and 5 p.m.  Drowsy driving happens during the night and during the day.

Drowsy driving is a problem no matter where we live or travel.  Last year in India, a bus crashed, killing 45 people.  One media outlet reported that the driver admitting he dozed off while driving.  Pick any country, and you can find reports of drowsy driving.

Possible Solutions to Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy Driving

A nap can be very beneficial

Many of us, when we notice we are sleepy while driving, try to “fix” it by turning up the radio or opening the window, or biting a lip.  These “remedies” work for only about 10 minutes.  Caffeine can provide a short-term jolt, but even that is limited in time and needs to be taken before feeling tired since it requires time for us to feel the effects. Bottom line: We are still sleep deprived and we are still dangerous as we drive down the road.

The only real solution to drowsy driving is sleep, whether it is finding a safe place to stop and get a short nap, such as at a Rest Area or a good night’s sleep before leaving. 

3-Step Checklist Before Traveling

To be prepared for any drive, Dr. Rosekind provides a three-step checklist:

  1. Recognize that fatigue is a risk and ask:
    • Do you have a sleep debt from the last night or a combination of nights?
    • How long have you been awake at this point?
    • What is the time of day when the driving is occurring?
    • Do you have a sleep disorder?
  2. If fatigue is an issue, take a nap or get some caffeine.
  3. Be sensitive to the environment. Are you driving at night or on a monotonous road? Driving in these conditions can reveal your fatigue.

Individually, each of these steps can raise a red flag.  Combined, they ensure we consider what condition we are in, and whether we are safe to travel.  Reviewing this checklist can save lives.  In the meantime, get a good night’s sleep.

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[1] .08 BrAC is the level when a person is presumed to be under the influence of alcohol in the United States and some countries.  A majority of countries have .05 BrAC or lower as the illegal limit.

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08 – Senior Driving: Be Proactive and Understand Your Limitations

December 4, 2013 | Posted in Podcast Episodes, Senior Driving

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December 2-6, 2013 is Older Driver Safety Awareness Week

Jacob Nelson

Jacob Nelson

Jacob (Jake) Nelson is an epidemiologist and the Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research for the Automobile Association of America (AAA).  Because of his background, Jake sees traffic safety in a different light from traditional traffic safety professionals.  In terms of Senior Driving, he analyzes the data and recognizes that when compared to other age groups, there is a greater percentage of seniors dying in fatal crashes.  However, it is usually because of their inability to recover from injuries received in a crash, not because of their driving abilities.  Thus, while senior drivers are typically safe drivers, their reaction time and judgment are affected by the aging process.  So what is one to do?  Just stop driving at a certain age?  The short answer to that question according to Jake, and based on the research, is an emphatic No.  Chronological age is not a good indication of safe—or unsafe—driving.  However, as we grow older issues can arise.  Understanding and addressing those issues is the critical consideration for any senior driver. Ultimately, that makes it safer for the senior driver and everyone else on the road.

Making Plans Beforehand

Older Driving Safety Awareness Week

Plan before there are any problems

It is important for senior drivers and their family members to recognize that in time they could become a danger on the road. Hanging up the keys for good can be one of the hardest decisions for any senior.  It can also be one of the hardest conversations for family members to have with a parent or grandparent. How can it be made easier? By planning ahead. In this episode Jake discusses how each family should have a conversation on what to do IF a senior driver becomes a danger to others on the road. The first step is to have the conversation before it is an issue, while the senior driver is still a safe driver.  Planning ahead for what to do if the situations arises demonstrates that you care for the person, while allowing for a free flowing discussion on how to remedy a future potentially dangerous situation.   The senior driver is an active participant in the decision-making process.

A Self-Evaluation Tool for Senior Drivers

AAA’s on-line tool, “Roadwise Review” is a useful tool to help senior drivers evaluate their driving skills.. It’s free, it can be done by anyone, and it takes only about 30-45 minutes to complete.  In making its determination, the evaluation looks at eight important considerations, including:

  • Flexibility
  • Visual Acuity
  • Memory, and
  • Mental Processing Speed.

After completing it, the person evaluated receives a confidential report. The report provides feedback on each area using three levels: Severe, Moderate or None. Where appropriate, suggestions on ways to improve driving abilities are also provided.  Taking this evaluation annually can help show clear changes in ability.

Medication and Senior Drivers

Older Driver Safety Awareness Week

Be sure to chat with your doctor about any medication you are taking

As we age, we are likely to take medication for a variety of ailments.  In a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey of people 55 years and older, 18% of the people surveyed indicated that they had received a warning from a doctor or nurse about the medication they were using and how it could impact their driving abilities; only 28% even recognized it as a possibility.  However, the fact that that some senior drivers are driving impaired from medication is a significant and growing concern. Jake discusses another useful tool AAA developed that can help educate you on how medications may affect your driving.  Called “Roadwise RX,” it is a free online tool to list  medications you take and then receive a report on how that drug or drugs may impair you.  It also includes possible interactions between medications.

Know the Useful Car Features

Jake also points out that having the “right” car could make a difference in being a safe driver.  While there is no “best” car for senior drivers because of the wide variety of individual physical challenges, there may be important features that should be considered when choosing a car. It is important to know of any personal limitations, and then look for features that help address these limitations.  To learn about any features that may be helpful, check out Smart Features for Older DriversIt is another useful free web-based tool to find out what features may be useful depending on your situation.  The list developed can be printed and then taken with you when looking for a car.

An Overview of Senior Driving Issues

Older Driver Safety Awareness Week

Time to go for a spin

Before my conversation with Jake, I provide an overview of some Senior Driving issues, along with a few questions a senior driver or loved one might ask.  With the number of older drivers growing, this will be an increasing challenge for families everywhere. This podcast provides great information for families and senior drivers on what is needed to continue driving long into retirement, allowing older drivers to have the freedom to go where they want, visit who they wish, and take on new adventures.

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