Experts warn: Avoid distractions while driving

COVINGTON -- Last week the U.S. Department of Transportation called on state and local governments to clamp down on distracted driving, specifically the use of handheld cell phones.

"Distracted driving is an epidemic. While we've made progress in the past three years by raising awareness about this risky behavior, the simple fact is people are continuing to be killed and injured -- and we can put an end to it," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Personal responsibility for putting down the cell phone is a good first step, but we need everyone to do their part, whether it's helping pass strong laws, educating our youngest and most vulnerable drivers, or starting their own campaign to end distracted driving."

The Newton County Sheriff's Office offers the P.R.I.D.E. program, which means Parents Reducing Injuries and Driver Error and encourages a driving partnership between parents and teens.

"We would just urge parents to avoid distracted driving themselves and set an example for teen drivers by avoiding behavior that distracts them while driving," said NCSO Public Information Officer Courtney Morrison. "All drivers, teens and adults, are responsible for ensuring the safety of everyone on the road by doing their part by not being a distracted driver."

Spencer Moore, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, said Georgia lawmakers have already passed laws to address the problem, especially among the young.

"In Georgia it is already illegal to text and drive. And we are one of the states that bans all cell phone use of drivers under 18," he said, adding that Georgia State Patrol troopers are writing citations when illegal cell phone usage is observed. "Awareness has been raised. What we've done is get the word out so citizens and drivers can make conscious decisions to not text and drive because it's very dangerous. And we see more problems with the very inexperienced drivers, thus the complete ban of cell phone use for them."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reminds drivers that cell phone usage isn't the only distraction that leads to crashes. Any activity that takes your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel and your mind off the task of driving safely is considered a distraction. Dangerous practices while driving include eating and drinking; talking to passengers; grooming; reading, including maps; using a navigation system; watching a video; and adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player.

According to NHTSA statistics, around 18 percent of all reported crashes in 2010 were caused by distractions. Those crashes caused the death of 3,092 people and an estimated 416,000 were injured.

The Hartford Insurance Company offers the following tips to avoid distracted driving:

-- Stow all phones, even hands-free ones.

"Driving while using a handheld or hands-free cell phone makes you as impaired as a drunk driver, according to a University of Utah study," they warn. When using a cell phone, your risk of accident quadruples and texting makes you eight times as likely to crash. Because even hands-free devices cause distraction, get into a driving habit of putting phones in a purse or briefcase out of reach in the backseat.

-- Listen to -- don't watch -- GPS devices.

These high-tech gadgets are supposed to help you navigate unknown streets, but if you fiddle with the controls or pay more attention to the screen than the road, you jeopardize your safety. Program your destination before you start driving and rely on the verbal cues from the GPS instead of the screen. If you know your nature is to keep looking at the screen, dim it.

-- Go 3-D when looking for an address.

Before you leave for an unfamiliar destination, review maps and directions. One tool you might find useful is Google Map's Street View. These 3-D views give you visual clues (turn right at the big red gas station) so you don't have to take your eyes off the road to look for street signs and house addresses.

-- Adjust controls and set the playlist before you roll.

Don't fiddle with gadgets like the radio, iPod or climate controls while driving. Set up your playlist before you turn on the ignition. And set climate controls to a comfortable level before you put the car in drive. This advice is particularly important if you're driving a rental car. Take a couple of seconds to familiarize yourself with the controls. If it takes more than a glance to adjust a control, wait until you're stopped to do it.

-- Ban conflict-inducing conversations.

When you talk with others in the car, heated arguments may pull your attention away from the traffic signals and pedestrians. Make it a driving habit that you'll save the big, deep discussions of finance, child-rearing philosophies and politics for outside the car. The same can be said for handling misbehaving children. If a child acts up in the backseat, the safest thing to do is pull off the road and give everyone a chance to cool down.

-- Buckle up Fido.

Unpredictable, unsecured pets can cause major distractions. There are a variety of restraints suitable for your type of pet and car, from a cage in the back of a station wagon to a harness that can be buckled with the safety belt. The backseat is also the best place for pets. That way you won't be tempted to pet or feed them.

-- Take breaks to avoid spacing out.

Daydreaming in a car can end up as a nightmare. If your mind is wandering to a problem at work or home, pull over to jot it down or make a phone call. Don't let it keep running through your head. Also, take regular breaks -- one at least every two hours (or about every 100 miles) on longer road trips.