Curbing distracted driving with “situational awareness”

With driving-related fatalities on the rise over the past couple of years—spurred by drivers’ increasing use of smartphones and other digital devices—a team at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health hopes to persuade distracted drivers to put down their phones and focus on the road.

A campaign to promote “situational awareness”—being aware of the entire traffic scene around your car—could help reduce the 35,000 motor vehicle-related fatalities that occur in the U.S. each year, said Jay Winsten, director of Harvard Chan School’s Center for Health Communication, in a December 7, 2016 interview on the WNYC radio show “Note to Self.”

Situational awareness—a factor in 90% of traffic crashes caused by human error—involves a driver regularly checking blind spots, glancing left and right, looking for darting children, and checking the side and rear view mirrors every 5 to 8 seconds. These scanning steps “are skills taught to airline pilots all the time,” said Winsten, and they’re crucial on the football field or on the basketball court. “But no one is yet talking publicly about it around traffic safety,” he said. “We want to move the conversation in that direction.”

And rather than try to convince drivers that they shouldn’t multitask while behind the wheel—because, according to public opinion polls, most people think they’re not the problem because they’re good at multitasking and good at driving—Winsten and his colleagues hope to mobilize passengers, even children, as “interveners” in convincing distracted drivers to pay more attention to the road.

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Learn more

Despite more regulations, texting while driving remains a growing safety concern (Harvard Chan School news)

Putting the brakes on distracted driving (Harvard Chan School feature)