Driven to Distraction

“I am not going to die today,” I thought. Yet, I was terrified. I was riding in the passenger seat of an SUV with a respectable, responsible, 50 something, guy at the wheel. We were sharing a ride to the job site in his car.

He was looking up phone numbers and making calls on his phone while we were traveling 45 mph on a winding two lane road. Apparently it’s not just younger drivers who think they can operate a car and a phone at the same time.

By now we have all heard how distracted driving causes more accidents than driving under the influence. Let’s face it, our plates are full, and since driving is something we do automatically, why not answer a call when it comes in so we have one less thing to do later, or maybe even check a few things off the list on the way home? That’s what I would tell myself.

A recent guest on Life Simplified Radio, Dr. Katharine Moore, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Arcadia University. As head of the Attention, Memory, and Cognition laboratory, Dr. Moore’s research projects explore the limits of attention (and whether we can overcome them); the relationship among attention, perception and memory; and how expertise affects these processes.

I asked Dr. Moore the difference between having a conversation with someone in your car versus someone on the phone. To me they seemed the same. Her answer described two unique differences:

1. People in the car share the same environment. They can see if the weather is making driving challenging or perhaps there is an accident or heavy traffic. As the driver you don’t have to explain why your attention has switched from a conversation you may be having to the road in front of you.

2. The second difference has to do with how the mind works. The mind has the ability to fill in when there are gaps in visual or auditory information. What we hear when we are on a cell phone call is a vastly degraded audible signal. Even though we may not realize it, a part of our brain has to pay closer attention to fill in the conversational gaps. This takes our attention away from the road.

I gave up the idea of looking at any incoming text messages a while ago, but the more mindful I become as a daily practice, the more I notice the consequences of even talking hands free while driving. It is really true, I can’t carry on a conversation that requires thinking and keep my attention on the road in front of me. Not the same level of attention at any rate.

To me, mindfulness is a practice similar to balance, which is to say it is not something we perfect, but something we continue to practice and improve upon throughout our lives.

Paying attention to what we are doing in the moment – being mindful – is a life-enhancing choice we can each make, especially during those activities (like driving) when a momentary lapse in attention can have devastating consequences.

In Maine, we have a law making it illegal to drive while distracted.
There is also a ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers and a ban on texting for drivers of all ages .

Distractions include:
• Texting
• Using a cell phone or smartphone
• Eating and drinking
• Talking to passengers
• Grooming
• Reading, including maps
• Using a navigation system
• Watching a video
• Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player

Who doesn’t do at least some of these activities while driving? Yet it is true. Even changing a CD or checking the gps distracts my attention from the road in front of me.

Did you know?

Texting is the most alarming distraction because it involves manual, visual, and cognitive distraction simultaneously? Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.

The research also indicates that the cognitive distraction of having a hands-free phone conversation causes drivers to miss the important visual and audio cues that would ordinarily help you avoid a crash(source:


My mindfulness practice now includes driving. Even though I have a built in hands free device in my van, I am no longer using my phone while driving. It goes in the cup holder when I get in the car and there it stays until I arrive. Simple.

There is a distraction epidemic in our culture. I can’t change the world, but I can change my response. In fact, my own behavior is only thing I can change.

Mindfulness may not only make the quality of my days brighter, happier, healthier, it may also help me (and others) to have more of them.

It’s a great life, simplified.

Bettina Blanchard

About Bettina Blanchard

It’s not what we have, it’s what we do that makes life fun. Professional organizer, business owner, radio show host, accordion player, I love to live and write about finding the balance between having and doing.