April is recognised as Distracted Driving Awareness Month in the US. Distracted driving has become endemic across the world and can mainly be attributed to texting while driving. In fact, the history of the awareness month can be traced back to Shelley Forney who advocated for safer driving following the death of her daughter in November 2008. Nine-year-old Erica was riding her bicycle home when she was struck by an SUV while the driver was looking at their phone.

Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for about five seconds. If you’re driving at 80km/h that is a distance about as long as a soccer field. Not only is holding your phone while driving illegal in South Africa, but texters are more likely to have an accident than drunk drivers.

However, distracted driving extends beyond texting. There are four types of distracted driving. Visual – taking your eyes off the road, to text or, for example, to adjust your radio. Manual – taking your hands off the steering wheel. Some people eat, do their makeup, shave, or even clean their teeth while driving! Auditory – hearing something not related to driving, like the beat that is so loud it bounces the car down the road. Cognitive – thinking about something other than driving, perhaps daydreaming about your next holiday.

The dangers are obvious. If you’re not focused on the task at hand, it could lead to an accident, with damage, injury or even death. This is putting your life and that of others on the road at risk. Yet, there are further safety dangers from distracted drivers missing critical events that most people don’t think about.

You might think oh, but I only look at my phone while waiting at the robots, so I’m not actually driving when I use it. However, criminals are relying on you to be distracted so that they can strike. At intersections, the distraction of picking up your phone while you are stopped sets you up as an easy target since your attention is diverted from the road and your surroundings. This also applies at a service station or in a car park. Plus, your car does not have to be at a complete stop for an incident to occur. There are videos that have circulated on social media of smash and grabs in slow-moving traffic.

So, what should you do?

• Avoid picking up your phone. If it’s an emergency, rather get your passenger to answer or text for you. Using hands-free isn’t any safer because it takes your thoughts away from driving and your surroundings. If you have the habit of reaching for the phone when a moment lulls, store it out of reach while you drive.
• Be alert. Keep your eyes on the road and pay attention to what is happening around you, so that you’ll notice if a car or bike is about to swerve into your lane or a pedestrian is about to step out in front of your car. Also, looking alert while driving may be enough to dissuade criminals from targeting you.
• Set and check the address in the GPS, adjust the climate or temperature controls, and select the radio station or music before your trip. The idea is to avoid small distractions that will take your attention away from driving. For example, if something drops, leave it there until later, unless it will get in the way of the pedals, in which case, pull over and move it.
• Don’t do anything that takes your hands off the steering wheel. Rather eat, drink, and attend to personal grooming before or after your trip. Remove any clothing that might become uncomfortable, like a jacket, before you get into the car.
• Ensure that small children are strapped in, and pets are secured before you drive. Also, limit the level of activity in the car to reduce distractions. For example, save an intense conversation for later when you are at home.
• Consider not only seeing but hearing what is going on outside your car. You could pick up a threat from behind just by hearing something. Limit the volume of your music so that you can still hear emergency sirens.
• Practice courteous road use. Also, avoid rubbernecking, as it could distract you enough that you slow down or slam on brakes, which could then cause an accident.

“Rather be safe than sorry,” says Duma Ngcobo, Chief Operating Officer at Tracker. “Ensure that you are aware of your surroundings while driving and that you can get out of the way or get away should the need arise. For your safety and the safety of everyone around you.”