March 19, 2013— -- People have been caught doing all sorts things that distract them behind the wheel -- from eating an ice cream cone to talking on a cell phone to driving drunk -- but one of the worst distractions might be something parents do every day: driving with kids in the backseat of the car.
In a first-of-its-kind study, Australian researchers found that children are 12 times more distracting to the driver than talking on a cell phone while at the wheel. According to their findings, the average parent takes their eyes off the road for a staggering three minutes and 22 seconds during a 16-minute trip.
When kids are in the car, parents are breaking up fights between squabbling siblings and calming fussy babies. By the way, those babies are eight times more distracting to the driver than adult passengers, according to AAA.
So I put myself to the test. A mother of two, I consider myself a safe driver, but I didn't realize the danger I was subjecting my children to until I mounted GoPro cameras to my van to capture a typical Saturday morning.
Charlie Klauer, a transportation engineer for Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute and a distracted-driving expert, along with her team analyze dangerous driving habits, what they call "eyes-off-the-road" moments. They agreed to evaluate the footage of both my driving and my husband's driving with our kids.
In one instance, Klauer pointed out that I was driving 55 to 60 miles per hour on the highway and my "eyes-off-the-road" time to glance at the kids was four seconds. In another, Klauer noted that I was distracted when one of my kids handed me his empty snack wrapper. And in another, I reached for my cell phone, taking my eyes off the road for six seconds.
"We've done some analysis looking at text messages, for example," she said. "A text message typically takes seven to eight, nine seconds to do and a driver's eyes are off the forward roadway at least half the time, if not more than that."
I had also adjusted my rearview mirror so I could keep an eye on my kids, and in another moment I was adjusting the DVD player.
Fathers are supposed to be the worst offenders. According the Australian study, children distract the men more and for longer periods of time.
But in my family's case, Klauer only found one driving issue with my husband.
"The rearview mirror is also, I believe, positioned to look at the children," she said.
It can be stressful, but there are solutions. Experts say the first thing to do is set up car rules so your kids know what to expect. If they drop something, parents need to make sure they know the driver cannot pick it up until the car stops.
If you are tempted to take a phone call, which puts the kids in even more danger, consider using an app like Zoom Safer. It blocks incoming calls and text messages by sending an automated response saying you are driving and will answer when you can.
And if you can't feed the kids before you leave, keep a snack bag close by – one of the few things I did right when I was behind the wheel.
Out of 10, Klauer said she would rate my safety skills at a "five to six." A failing grade.
"The mirror is kind of bad," she said.
I'll work on that.