From Making Salad to Getting Dressed -- What Are Drivers Doing Behind the Wheel?

Video: Government launches national distracted driving program.

Talking on a cell phone, changing the radio station -- these driving distractions are in the minor leagues for Kathy Smith.

The 57-year-old said she has routinely put on nylons behind the wheel and drives with her knees so she can balance both her cell phone and note-taking. When her daughter was young, Smith said she was often running so late she'd leave the house in her pajamas and exit her car dressed for work.

"I'm really good," she told

Her proudest driving while distracted moment? Making an entire salad behind the wheel with all the accoutrement of a stocked kitchen -- cutting board, knife, veggies, pasta and mayo -- on her way to a funeral several years ago.

"I grabbed everything I had, and whenever I came to a signal I did that," she said. Once the ingredients were chopped and in the bowl, "I just flipped it when I could and would hold the bowl with one hand."

East Coasters can breathe a sigh of relief -- Smith lives in California.

The issue of distracted driving -- long touted by lawmakers and transportation researchers as a major cause of car accidents and fatalities -- has been thrust into the public eye once again with paparazzi photos of California first lady Maria Shriver chatting on her cell phone as she cruised the streets of Brentwood, Calif.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the best-selling book, "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do," said people have been concerned about distraction ever since radios were installed in cars. But newer forms of distraction -- including cell phones and texting -- consume significantly more "mental resources."

"People are not always effective managers of their own distraction," he wrote in an e-mail to, "and the traffic environment can shift in a heart-beat from relatively 'safe' to a complex, hazard-avoiding moment in which one's cognitive abilities may be otherwise occupied."

He called texting the "perfect storm" because it involves visual, tactile and cognitive distraction.

"One psychologist mentioned to me he was surprised it would even be the source of a study," Vanderbilt wrote. "'What next,' he joked, 'studying the effects of driving while blindfolded?'"

Distracted Driving Blamed on Thousands of Car Crashes Each Year

While cell phone use still is considered to be one of the most dangerous distractions for drivers, according to a 2006 study by the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, reading and eating behind the wheel both were found to increase the likelihood of a crash by three times.

"Visual inattention" was the cause of 93 percent of all rear-ended crashes, the study found. And 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved drivers looking away within three seconds of the incident.

Vanderbilt, whose first teenage crash happened after he looked away to change the radio dial, said his favorite example of inattentiveness at the wheel came from a Canadian government official who used his cell phone to film a nearby motorist shaving in the driver's seat -- while the government official was behind the wheel himself.

"The official waited until a red light to film, but the interesting point here is that it's the minister that would have gotten the ticket," Vanderbilt said, "as there's no law against shaving while driving per se."

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