In 2019, distracted driving caused 3,142 deaths on the road (Traffic Safety Facts, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
Would you recognize a distracted driver if you saw one? Fortunately, most of the signs are pretty easy to spot.
As part of your situational awareness when you’re behind the wheel, keep your eyes peeled out for the following:
1. Erratic movements/inability to stay in one lane
A visually distracted driver will have their eyes directed at the dashboard, something on their lap for several seconds at a time, at the passenger seat, or the back seat (which would be a likely scenario if they have children with them in the car). With their attention elsewhere, they won’t notice that their car has drifted out of their lane. They may then oversteer with hard and quick corrections when their focus their attention back on the road.
2. Holding a phone to their ear, texting (or the glow of a cell phone if driving at night)
Despite reminders everywhere not to text or make/take a call when driving, many drivers still do, instead of pulling to a stop to use their cell phone.
3. Rowdy interaction with other people in the car
A driver who is rather enthusiastically interacting with the person or people in the car with them, especially if the passengers are being rowdy, can easily get distracted.
4. Driving too fast or too slow
Among the many things distracted drivers lose track of is their speed. Depending on what they’re preoccupied with, they will drive either too fast or too slow—and things get more dangerous when they suddenly change speed sans any obvious reason.
5. Running a red light
This just about screams “I wasn’t paying attention.”
6. Eating while driving
Be wary when you see someone eating behind the wheel.
A lot of things can happen, and distract you, if you eat while driving. A piece of your pizza/burger/sandwich could fall while you’re taking a bite, and your knee-jerk reaction would be to pick it up (that involves looking down), or wipe your chin, shirt, or pants/skirt (that involves reaching for a napkin, and most likely taking your eyes off the road). Same goes for drinks. A spill can take your attention from the road.
7. Slow response time
This is a telltale sign that the driver’s brain isn’t fully engaged in the task at hand. This sign is commonly spotted at stop signs and traffic lights—where the driver takes a few more extra seconds to react to a green light or wait out a few traffic openings at a stop sign before pulling into traffic.
When a driver is distracted, he may fail to accurately judge the distance between his vehicle and the vehicle in front of him at all times.
9. Sudden braking
This likely means the driver missed the Stop Ahead, Signal Ahead, or any other road warning signs that they should have properly responded to by slowing down at the right time.
10. Failure to use turn signal
You need to use the turn signal to let other drivers know the direction you are going next. In turn they can determine their how they should maneuver in relation to your move. Failure to signal means the driver didn’t plan ahead and was likely too distracted to determine where they want to go.
So what’s the best thing to do when you spot a distracted driver?
You can pull ahead of them, or slow down and let them pull ahead. If a distracted driver is endangering you and others, call 911, so they can be stopped before people get hurt. Avoid getting their attention or engaging with them yourself. Wait for the police, who are best equipped to deal with the situation.