Published November 29, 2016

At the beginning of October, I decided to embark on a month-long experiment to discover how much my phone had been distracting me while I was driving. Over those 31 days, I learned a lot more about my relationship with my cell phone and with driving than I’d anticipated. Because of that, I’ve continued the experiment with the intent of making safer, more mindful driving a habit.

First, I have to admit that I didn’t stick to my commitment of keeping my phone in the glovebox 100% of the time.  On a few occasions, I used my phone for GPS navigation, changed my playlist at a red light, and used my car’s Bluetooth sync functionality to take a couple of hands-free phone calls. The first few days were the most difficult, and the most illuminating: I found myself automatically reaching for my phone when impatiently waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and more tempted to check to see who had just texted me than I had expected to be. But after the first week, my alertness and attentiveness to my surroundings and to other drivers had noticeably increased, and I began to enjoy the act of driving with a newfound respect and appreciation.

Cars are safer than ever, but driving has become more dangerous

When safety innovations like seatbelts and airbags became mandated by law, the number of deaths caused by car accidents decreased dramatically. However, last year we saw the largest spike in vehicle-related fatalities in 50 years. Many think that cellphone use – apps in particular – is to blame for this disturbing trend, and perhaps what’s most tragic about it is that it’s completely preventable.

Trade multi-tasking for mindfulness behind the wheel

From my personal experience, I think distracted driving has become so pervasive for a few of reasons: we’re more addicted to our smartphones than we want to admit, and we’re too comfortable multitasking while behind the wheel. While our morning commute may become as routine as brushing our teeth, driving is a very complex and cognitively demanding activity where mistakes have very serious consequences. Our brains can only truly focus on one thing at a time, and when behind the wheel, the road and vehicles surrounding us should be taking up all of our attention.

Being a more mindful and alert driver has made me acutely aware of just how dangerous driving can be, and how seriously we need to take it.Once I started paying closer attention, I was astonished at how many people I noticed texting while driving; when stopped at red lights, I observed at least half of drivers using their cell phones. Anything that we do on a regular basis loses its novelty and becomes routine. I remember the nervousness I felt as a teenager the first few times I entered the entrance ramp of an interstate, but now it’s become second nature. Experience enables us to make better-informed and safer decisions on the road in general, but we shouldn’t let our comfortability behind the wheel slip into complacency.

Check your mirrors, figuratively and literally

The recent technological advancements in self-driving cars are also relevant to this conversation, because aside from disrupting the transportation industry, automated vehicles could make our travels much safer and save thousands of lives by removing the human element behind the wheel. But for now, we each need to take a good, hard look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves about what we can do each day to be safer on the road. I was genuinely surprised and humbled to find myself more prone to distraction than I thought, but now I know what steps to take that will ensure I’m focused on driving and only driving.