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

Drivers continue to engage in risky behavior behind the wheel.

BySarah Netter
October 14, 2009, 12:14 PM

Oct. 15, 2009— -- 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."

While some drivers apparently have gotten more brazen -- the Internet abounds with anecdotes about drivers buried in a novel or even practicing the trumpet -- motorists have been admitting to less-than-attentive driving for years.

A 2002 NHTSA survey of distracted driver behaviors reported that 12 percent of people admitted to reading a map or directions behind the wheel and 8 percent reported taking part in "personal grooming" while in motion. Nearly half, 49 percent, reported eating or drinking at least some of the time, while a whopping 81 percent reported chatting with fellow passengers.

Smith said she never once has been in an accident while multi-tasking in the car, though she sometimes worries what would happen if she were hit by someone else and didn't have her hands on the wheel.

Her daughter, now 27, however, was less than thrilled with her mother's habits.

"She always used to think, 'Mom, that's crazy!'" Smith said.

Distracted Driver Stories Range From the Amusing to the Heartbreaking

Several states have cracked down on distracted driving, and proposals for stricter regulations and harsher punishments have cropped up regularly. Six states and the District of Columbia ban handheld phones for all drivers, while 18 states and D.C. ban text messaging while driving.

Yet some states, including Alabama, Idaho and North Dakota have no laws on the books regarding distracted driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Still, there have been numerous cases of deaths blamed on distracted driving.

Lora Hunt, a suburban Illinois mother, pleaded not guilty to six counts of reckless homicide this month in connection with a March crash in which she smashed into motorcycle at a red light while painting her nails. The motorcyclist, Anita Zaffke, died from multiple internal injuries and a spinal fracture.

In 2007, text messaging was thought to be behind a crash that killed five cheerleaders in western New York.

While distracted driving has been blamed for causing motorists to weave or drive at slower speeds, crashes are the biggest consequence to worry about, Vanderbilt said.

Vanderbilt himself admits to using his iPhone in the car to change songs or check his e-mail, but only at a red light.

"There is always going to be a bit of 'distraction' in driving," he said. "As we get good at it, it typically consumes less of our mental workload."

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