Phones: not the only distractions

Thomas McMahon
Posted on April 17, 2013

Let’s not lay too much blame on cell phones.

Yes, talking and texting with cell phones is a major factor in automotive crashes. And many states have banned drivers from using cell phones.
But there was distracted driving before cell phones, and there will always be many other ways to be distracted while driving. Hard as they may try, lawmakers can’t outlaw every distraction.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) defines distracted driving as “any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.” Besides cell phone use, here are some of the activities that the DOT lists as distractions: eating and drinking, grooming, reading (including maps), adjusting a radio or other music player, and talking to passengers.

That last point piqued my interest. Recently, I was driving with my brother on a 50-mph road. I was having a conversation with him as I drove, and I suddenly realized that two adults on bicycles were slowly crossing the road up ahead — even though the light was red for them and green for me. Fortunately, I was able to stop my car before reaching the bikers, but it was a close call.

Going over the incident in my mind later, I couldn’t help but think that talking to my brother might have slowed my reaction time somewhat. While I was still looking forward as I talked, it seemed that being engaged in conversation slightly delayed my realization that what was happening in the road up ahead required an immediate response: hitting the brakes.

On a school bus, there is plenty of potential for distraction. If children are acting up, they will inevitably take the driver’s attention away from the road to check the rearview mirror.

But what about having conversations with kids (or even aides) on the bus while driving? Is that a source of distraction that should be avoided? And, if so, how does a driver delicately deal with a child who constantly wants to chat?

On that topic, New York state’s bus regulations state that “while driving a vehicle, no driver shall engage in any unnecessary conversation or other activities that could distract his/her attention from the operation of such vehicle.”

I asked several directors of transportation what they think are top distractions for school bus drivers. Here are a few: reaching for something (coffee, radio), looking at things outside of the bus (garage sale, etc.) and subs looking at route sheets. Here’s a response that’s an interesting twist on the cell phone issue: drivers using their cells not to make calls or text, but to check the time.

Of course, distraction isn’t limited to things that are happening in or around the bus. Personal concerns can take one’s focus away from the task at hand.

In February, the mayor of a small town in Kentucky resigned from his second job as a school bus driver after accidentally leaving a sleeping child on his bus.

John Tompkins of McKee told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he may have been distracted by thinking about his mayoral duties and that “when children are involved and you’ve got that much on your mind, then there’s nothing else you can do” but resign.

Related Topics: distracted driving

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
Comments ( 1 )
  • Bus Driver

     | about 3 years ago

    Monitors should be on all school buses, k thru 5 and middle school as well. I've driven a school bus for ten years and I can tell you that it's impossible to monitor the kids and maintain safe driving standards at the same time. When drivers are distracted this way neither responsibility is given the proper attention. No one working in student transportation would disagree that monitors add improved safety to the school bus environment. Meaning that monitors aren't being cut because they aren't needed. They're being cut because of money. Which is more important child safety or money? It's negligent on the part of school districts to put drivers and students in this position. I don't think it would be that hard for a good attorney to convince a judge or jury of this fact in a lawsuit filed by parents. Drivers using a cell phone or texting while driving is not allowed because it will be too distracting to the driver. So, why is it acceptable for drivers to be distracted by trying to monitor 30 to 60 children while driving? How many tragedies does it have to take to force the districts to do the right thing?

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