Driving in the Real WorldTM is a change agent for driving safely and efficiently in the real world. Many driver's education programs, especially in the United States, do not adequately train people in hazard perception, risk management, and proper handling of the complex challenges of everyday driving. Through its blog, social media, and upcoming subscription newsletter, DITRWTM offers tips, techniques, and reflections on driving that will improve your situational awareness and may even save your life and that of others.

There is an enormous need to make our roads safer by making it socially unacceptable to be a bad driver in America, regardless of the cause. We must completely rethink how we drive and how we teach it, and then make the driving test something to actually be respected. Driver's ed should also be a lifelong learning process. And I believe that this can be achieved in much more fun, enjoyable, and experiential ways than it is often presented now.

Many people don't realize this, but what makes you a better driver also improves you in many other areas of life. This involves honest self-examination of our core values as both a society and the individuals that constitute it, and truly making the necessary changes to improve our attitudes on the road.

Thank you so much for visiting. I invite readers to share their own experiences and reflections on driving, to suggest ideas on the subject, and to follow me on Twitter (@DrivingReal).

—Mi Ae



Entries in NHTSA (2)


Distracted Driving in Washington State in 2017: A Case Study and Why You May Be Already Paying for It


It’s the beginning of March, and Washington State’s 2017 legislative session is almost halfway through. In another month or so, the ultimate fate of several proposed distracted driving bills will be known.

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t drive while using our cell phones. We see countless bad drivers around us paying more attention to their devices than the road. Perhaps you’re one of them. If you are, I ask you to stop. NOW. Not just because it hurts and kills people (shouldn’t that be enough of a reason?), but also because I’m literally paying for it and likely so are you and hundreds of thousands of other Washington State residents. 

Before we go further, let’s define distraction, because accurate definitions matter. The venerable Oxford Dictionary lists “distraction” as “a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.” Often-cited driver distractions include eating, grooming, wrangling children, talking to passengers, fussing with pets, falling asleep, reading, and operating in-car technology. Of course, the big elephant in the front seat is the cell phone—specifically smartphones that allow us to access email, apps, social media, texting, cameras, and Internet.

Washington was actually the very first state to ban drivers from texting and using handheld devices in 2008, but its laws are now archaic and haven’t kept up with modern smartphone technology. At press time, the current law makes it a primary offense, meaning that a driver can be ticketed for this infraction alone.

Tough To Enforce

So you might wonder: Everywhere I look, drivers are holding their damn phones and talking and texting. Why aren’t the cops out enforcing the law? Well, they are, handing out 2,500 to 3,000 citations monthly in Washington State. But the law is enforceable only if the device is held up to one’s ear or if the driver is texting (or admits to it). If drivers tell police that they were inputting GPS directions or checking sports scores, officers can’t legally write them a ticket, even if they’ve witnessed unsafe driving.

Cell phone records are not typically checked unless devices are suspected as factors in a crash, but even with such records it can be tough to prove in court without a doubt that the driver was inattentive at the exact moment of a crash; phone records also don’t log unfinished or unsent text messages. 

Proposed legislative bills HB 1371 and SB 5289 would eliminate these loopholes by forbidding holding a smartphone, tablet, or other communications device while driving, using dashboard-mounted devices that require more than the tap of a finger (to allow for minimal GPS operation), and watching videos while driving. Fines would remain at $136 for a first offense but jump to $248 for a second offense, and insurers could see cellphone driving violations on driving records.

What’s the Big Deal?

So you might be asking: What’s the big deal? Why not also ban reaching for a water bottle, or fiddling with a radio? Or listening to music?  A third bill, HB 1631, does target activities such as eating, reaching for a dropped item, or tending to pets or backseat passengers that significantly interfere with safe vehicle operation.

The key difference with electronic technology lies in the cognitive load. We think we can multitask but we can’t—our brains simply switch back and forth very quickly. Ever notice how people walking while talking on cell phones suddenly stop moving when they’re in the deepest conversation? Their vision deadens and their brains can’t handle the two tasks at once.

Cell phones also demand our visual and manual attention. Consider these facts:

  • Texting drivers on average take their eyes off the road for up to 5 seconds at a time. At 55 mph, that’s traveling the length of a football field completely blind.
  • Drivers talking on the phone can miss up to 50 percent of what’s in their driving environments.
  • Texting can make drivers 23 times more likely to crash, as profound as drunk driving.
  • It’s not safe to use a device even when stopped at a traffic light; University of Utah researchers have found that drivers can take up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after sending a text.
  • Hands-free and Bluetooth operation aren’t safer—that cognitive load is still present.
  • The National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes annually and is a factor in 1 out of every 4 collisions in the United States.

What makes this technology especially dangerous is our desire to engage with it so compulsively. We’re biologically wired to crave social connection and information. An incoming call or message is the proverbial tap on our shoulder, as Matt Richtel writes of the neurocognitive science in his 2014 book A Deadly Wandering. Ours is a perpetual reward system—answer that siren call, and our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates our pleasure centers. Respond again, and we get another little dopamine squirt. Once habituated, our brains crave more, getting restless when deprived of stimulation for too long before its next fix.

Based on this neuroscience, I strongly believe this is why so many entreaties to not use our cell phones when driving simply don’t work. It’s not simply behavioral—it’s about overcoming a chemical addiction of sorts (or at least a very strong biological compulsion). It’s not recognizing and addressing the problem for what it is.

Whether a solution lies in devices being put in the mandatory equivalent of an airplane mode when the car is in motion, or aggressive deprogramming of behavior through a 12-step program of sorts, or other alternatives remains to be seen. Consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties will also help.


But What If?

You might be thinking: But what if I have an emergency and need to call or message back while driving? The truth is that our biology has superbly trained us to be slaves to our technology by creating a false sense of urgency, desire, and reward. Danger is abstract for us because most days nothing happens. We’re not good at conceptualizing consequence until we’re staring at its aftermath. And with death and injury, that aftermath can be incomprehensible. It’s always preventable. No call, text, game, or selfie is ever worth it, period. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatal crashes rose nationwide by 7.2 percent in 2015; experts believe that the use of smartphones is largely to blame. In that same year in Washington State, distracted driving-related deaths jumped 32 percent to 160, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. That’s just deaths—not counting the 587 serious injuries, 14,601 minor injuries, and 30,195 property-damage-only collisions. That’s more than 5 incidents every hour. Add in thousands more unreported incidents and near-misses, and you get the idea. And that’s just in Washington State.

I never talk, text, or operate my cell phone while driving except for one-touch commands to operate GPS or Pandora; even the latter I keep to an absolute minimum. But several weeks ago, my insurance policy went up several hundred dollars annually. My agent said that the increase was not because of anything I’d done, but because of statewide rate hikes. Turns out that insurance companies are feeling the effects of distracted driving too. Their loss costs—payments to treat injuries, repair damaged vehicles and property, and defend insured drivers in legal actions—have jumped 16 percent over the past two years, and auto rates among Washington State’s top 20 insurers increased 5.9 percent in 2016 alone. You and I pay these costs, even if we aren’t at fault ourselves.

Political Hurdles

In spite of all this, distracted driving bills are challenging to pass. In these rancorous political times, many bills die or survive strictly along partisan lines. Legislators themselves don’t want to give up using their own devices while driving, and like the general public, are in denial or just ignorant about the issues involved.

This was brought home to me recently when I saw the words of one Washington State legislator in a social media post. Asked why she voted against one of this session’s distracted driving bills, she shot back: “This serious issue of people addicted to their iPhones is a cultural problem. We can't legislate responsibility and cultural change. It must begin with us.” 

What?? Can’t legislate responsibility? Cultural change? How about we just walk back those drunk driving and drug impairment laws too? Because our smartphones are the ultimate open container. “Us” isn’t getting the job done. Neurocognitive research has proved that beyond a doubt. Yes, change has to come from us too, but legislators need to be brave enough to take a serious stand for the common good and send a strong message to the cultures they shape and protect. Otherwise, what’s their purpose?

In a country that values personal freedom and individual rights above all else, one might argue that government regulation has no place here. But at stake are lives, well-being, property, and the economy. Personally I’d love the right to drive without fear of someone on their cell phone crashing into me, or my children to walk across the street without threat of being killed or injured by an oblivious red light runner, or to not have to literally pay for the follies of others. Who knows, you just might too.

What You Can Do

So, what can you do? Contact your legislators. Advocate for consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties. Pledge to make cell phone use while driving as socially inacceptable as drunk driving. Make it a priority that you won’t enable yourself or others to perpetuate this dangerous activity.

The single best way to overcome temptation? Shut off your phone completely and put it where you can’t reach or hear it, like in the trunk. If you must use GPS, input addresses before you start moving. If you need to adjust it, wait until you’re safely stopped.

And remember, you’re always modeling behavior for your children as well. By the time they’re driving age, they’ve had at least 15 years of seeing what you do behind the wheel—a little late to tell them “do as I say, not as I do.”


Matt Richtel writes extensively about the cognitive neuroscience behind the attention-eroding effects of technology in A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention—well worth reading if you want to learn more.


Banning of Texting

Last week, US news headlines were all atwitter after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended a nationwide ban on the use of all portable electronic devices while driving—including handsfree cell phones.

This announcement was sparked by the NTSB’s final report on a chain-reaction accident in August 2010 in Missouri that involved a pickup truck, a semi, and two school buses, resulting in two fatalities and 35 people injured. A number of factors contributed to this pileup, including road construction and driver fixation on another vehicle parked on the side of the road, but the incident was likely first triggered by a distracted 19-year-old who had been texting.

Phone records showed that he had sent or received 11 texts in 11 minutes just prior to the crash. Since he was among the fatalities, it will never be known if he was actually typing, reaching for his phone, or reading a message at the time of impact, but it was clear that he was cognitively and physically distracted enough that he didn’t see the semi that he rear-ended.

It deeply disturbs me that it’s taken this long for a national texting ban to even be considered in the United States, and it is a testament to how we don’t take driving safety seriously in this country. The vast majority of countries and provinces in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Canada prohibit the non-emergency driver use of handheld devices when operating a vehicle. And even stricter laws apply in Germany, the UK, Japan, and India, where even handsfree devices are forbidden.

Nearly 5,500 people were killed and 450,000 injured in 2009 on American roads in distraction-related accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). While the causes of driver distraction include eating, adjusting the radio, and other activities, talking and texting on cell phones are the most alarming, partly because they involve such sustained cognitive, visual, and manual attention, and because so many more drivers are engaging in them than even a year ago.

Consider these factors:

  • A 2009 Car and Driver magazine test showed that braking and reaction times when texting took two to six times longer than when intoxicated.
  • Drivers who were texting drove worse than drivers high on marijuana, according to a test conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in London.
  • The same TRL study also revealed that drivers’ ability to steer while text reduced by a whopping 91 percent when compared to drivers giving their full attention to motoring.
  • During a three-day Blackberry outage in October 2011, traffic accidents in Dubai dropped 20 percent compared to historical averages. In Abu Dhabi, accidents dropped by 40 percent, and zero fatalities occurred. This is remarkable when you consider that traffic accidents occur in Dubai every three minutes and fatal accidents in Abu Dhabi every two days.
  • Almost 50 percent of all drivers aged 18 to 24 are texting at some point while driving. This fact is even scarier when you consider that this demographic is already the most prone to accidents because of their inexperience with road situations and overconfidence in their abilities. 

Texting and other activities on portable electronics are increasing factors not just in automobile crashes but also in other modes of transportation. In 2008, 25 people died and 135 were injured (46 of them critically) when two trains collided in Los Angeles, with one of the conductors found to have been distracted by text messages he was sending while on duty. And who can forget the 2009 incident where two Northwest Airlines pilots overshot their destination by 150 miles because they lost track of time and location while using their laptops?

Even though 30 US states have legally banned texting while driving as of July 2010, the ban has done nothing to actually change our driving behavior. In fact, a NHTSA study shows that texting while driving has increased 50 percent from just a year ago (and many of us don’t need statistics to tell us that—it’s apparent from just looking at other drivers). Traffic safety officials universally agree that unless people feel that they are at risk of being literally stopped and fined for texting, they will continue to do so.

But from a law enforcement perspective, actually proving that someone was texting or sending an email message (as opposed to making a call or using GPS) and then stopping them for it is extremely difficult. And there are other legal obstacles; in Indiana, for instance, officers are legally not permitted to confiscate a cell phone from a driver to try to determine whether the motorist committed an illicit communications act. 

The funny thing is, everyone I’ve ever talked to about this subject unanimously agrees that texting and talking on cell phones while driving is a bad thing, and yet they almost always admit to having done it at some point themselves. So why do we do it if we know it endangers ourselves and others? The answer lies deep in the heart of human psychology, and it involves feedback/reward/brain chemical cycles, addiction, overconfidence, self-discipline, decisionmaking, and our infinite ability to behave irrationally in the face of logic and irrefutable evidence.

I myself have never texted while driving, but I was one of those people who, even as recently as a couple of years ago, felt that I was an exception and could at least talk on the phone behind the wheel and still drive safely. But after some honest self-observation, I’ve realized that I absolutely cannot be as alert talking on a cell phone (even on Bluetooth) as when I’m not on a phone. (And for that matter, I’ve discovered how distracted I can be even when talking to a front-seat passenger.)

Many people are protesting the NTSB’s proposed ban on all handheld electronic devices, and perhaps rightly so. How is the technology usage defined? (Think about iPods.) Where does it end? (Current exceptions, even for the proposed ban, are made for in-car systems and GPS technologies, for instance.) Why is law enforcement allowed to still use their devices? Will the ban apply equally to commercial drivers (i.e., truckers and their CB radios)? How will it be enforced? What monitoring/privacy issues are at stake? Upcoming blog entries will further cover these controversies, as well as the ramifications of (and solutions to) other distractions, such as eating, drinking, fiddling with sound systems, conversing with passengers, fighting with kids, and operating buttons on the dashboard.

Anything that takes away from your direct visual and mental focus on the road can be potentially lethal, but I personally feel that texting in particular is the new DUI of our modern-day road life. The sustained cognitive and physical concentration required to maintain the activity, layered atop its addictive qualities, make it extra deadly—and irresistible.