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By Damon Poeter
Cellphone use is the most common activity targeted by distracted driving laws, and texting while driving is banned in 48 states.
Some states also prohibit drivers from using any hand-held devices, allowing only hands-free use – meaning voice commands – to make phone calls or to send and receive messages.
These laws focus on three main categories of distraction:
Manual: When drivers take their hands off the wheel
Visual: When drivers take their eyes off the road
Cognitive: When a driver’s mind isn’t focused on the task of driving
Texting can simultaneously trigger all three of these types of distractions.
“Studies have proven over and over again that driving is not automatic. We need to make certain our hands are on the wheel, eyes on the road and mind is focused on the drive,” says Sean Scaturro, director of insurance advice for USAA.
Recent research suggests that even hands-free use of mobile devices can impair a driver’s ability to focus on the road, potentially increasing the risk of an accident.
“Taking a phone call in the car, even on a hands-free device, can be a distraction.” Scaturro says. “You're splitting focus between the conversation and driving, which can cause you to be distracted.”
The researchers also found that drivers who have conversations with passengers aren’t as prone to distraction as drivers talking on the phone. That’s because a passenger can observe the road ahead and pause the conversation when the driver needs to increase their focus on driving.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be distracted by a conversation with a passenger. And looking into your passenger’s eyes for long stretches of time like they do in the movies is probably a bad idea, Scaturro says.
Regardless of what the law says, drivers should shut off their cell phones when driving, Scaturro says. Here are more tips to prevent distracted driving:
Use your phone’s built-in tools. If your phone has a setting that sends calls to voice mail when it detects you’re driving, turn that feature on.
Don’t cut corners. Avoid texting/using your phone in stop-and-go traffic or at lights, because you’ll be tempted to “just finish up” a text or social media post even after you’ve started moving.
If it’s an emergency, pull over. You can’t dictate when an important call is going to blow up your phone, but you can decide that no call is worth jeopardizing the safety of you and your passengers.
Take care of your pets. Having an unrestrained pet in the car not only increases the risk of distracted driving, but it puts the animal at much greater risk of being harmed if you have an accident.
Take care of your kids when you’re safely off the road. Children in car seats may scream and cry, but it’s more important for you to keep them safe than to immediately cater to their needs.
Preset your navigation and climate control preferences. Try to set up as much as you can before you hit the road to reduce the amount of time you spend fiddling with map apps and in-vehicle systems while driving.
Recruit a navigator. If you’re driving with a passenger, enlist them to perform navigation and other tasks like climate control and audio selection, which will also keep them more focused on the drive and everyone in the car safer.
Scaturro's credo is simple: “Keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and mind on the drive at all times.”
Sean Scaturro is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner and serves as USAA’s director of life and health insurance advice. He joined USAA in 2006 and has served members previously as a wealth manager and a practice management consultant. Prior to joining USAA, Sean worked in commercial insurance focusing on workers’ compensation, group health insurance and other financial services.
Updated April 2022
Safety guidelines are not intended to be all inclusive, but are provided for your consideration. Please use your own judgment to determine what safety features/procedures should be used in each unique situation.
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