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Guide Life: Distracted driving

On the farm or on the road, turn that cellphone off!

Farmers know safety is important. So why do so many of us overlook one of the leading causes of injury and death? Distracted driving is a contributing factor in 80 per cent of vehicle collisions, leading to four million car crashes in North America each year.

And in case you’re skeptical, those aren’t numbers that someone just dreamed up. They’re straight from accident reports, as compiled by the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).

As smartphones have become commonplace, collisions due to distracted driving have increased dramatically. In Ontario, the number of deaths from distracted driving has doubled since 2000, with another person injured in a distracted driving collision every half hour, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

“Distraction” in this case means anything that draws your attention away from your primary task of driving. One of the worst offenders is texting while driving. You are 23 times more likely to get in an accident when texting while driving compared to when you are focused on the road, says Kristine D’Arbelles, manager of public affairs at CAA.

It’s easy to see why texting while driving is so dangerous. If it takes you five seconds to type or read a text, at 55 miles per hour that’s like driving blindfolded for the length of a football field.

While most of us wouldn’t think of drinking and driving, texting and driving has been shown to be as much as five times more dangerous than impaired driving, emphasizes D’Arbelles.

Even though texting is illegal across Canada, and fines and penalties have increased in recent years, driving and texting is still a huge problem. In a recent survey of Ontario high school students, half of Grade 12 students admitted to texting while driving.

Nor is it just the teenagers who are texting. “It’s as much the 20- to 55-year-olds,” says Dean Anderson, strategic adviser for agriculture at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, a not-for-profit organization that provides health and safety expertise in Guelph, Ont.

If you’re the type of person who has a hard time ignoring the flashing lights or pings on your phone, D’Arbelles recommends turning it off or putting it somewhere where you can’t reach it.

Also be aware that it isn’t just texting that’s a problem. Even when talking hands-free on a phone, your odds of being involved in a collision are about four times higher compared to when you are focusing solely on your driving, says Anderson. “That’s because when you’re talking on the phone you’re using the same part of your brain that you use for driving,” he explains.

D’Arbelles agrees. She says this is what’s known as cognitive distraction. Anderson goes so far as to say he thinks the government made a big mistake when they allowed phones in vehicles.

His own organization has a policy prohibiting employees from using smartphones, even for hands-free calling when driving. Anderson says he is aware of other companies that have similar policies.

Smartphones aren’t the only form of distraction. Reaching for a loose object makes you nine times more likely to be in an accident and applying makeup while driving increases your risk of an accident by a factor of three. Other forms of distraction include fiddling with the GPS settings, eating, driver fatigue, and children or pets requiring attention.

Set the destination on the GPS before you start the car, ensure the children have what they need before you put the car in gear, and don’t eat messy foods on-the-go, advises D’Arbelles.

Distracted driving can also be a problem for operators of tractors and combines, says Glen Blahey, a specialist at the Winnipeg-based Canadian Agriculture Safety Association, a non-profit organization that promotes farm safety. Blahey says operators who rely on autosteer can run into trouble if the electronics fail or when there are physical obstructions such as excavations or hydro towers. “Farmers become dependent on the technology and become inattentive,” he explains.

Anderson agrees. Although there aren’t any statistics available yet, he is hearing anecdotal evidence, such as the case of a young man who drove the combine into a drainage ditch when he was texting his girlfriend. Another farmer told Anderson he drove a hundred feet down the road with no hands after failing to turn off the autosteer after a long day in the field.

Distraction during the hectic planting and harvesting seasons is a serious problem, says Blahey. When farmers are distracted by the urgency of getting work done they overlook normal precautions, so the number of severe injuries and fatalities goes up, he says.

While it may sound funny, the number of pedestrians who are injured while texting is also on the rise. Despite what we think, we actually aren’t very good at multi-tasking. Next time you are in town for parts or when you’re attending a conference in the city, you’d be wise to put away your phone while walking. Anderson says as many as 20 people are hit by cars in a day in Toronto because pedestrians are paying attention to their phones and not their surroundings.

D’Arbelles predicts the day will come when texting and driving will be as socially unacceptable as impaired driving is now. The penalties have been stiffened with all provinces having fines and demerit points for distracted driving infractions. Enforcement has been ramped up with police officers dressing as homeless people on street corners or riding buses to catch people in the act of texting.

Awareness campaigns by government and safety organizations will continue to get the word out. As people become aware of friends and family who have been seriously injured or killed as a result of distracted driving, societal norms will change.

However, there’s no need to wait for society to catch up. You can create a safer environment for your family and employees by implementing policies to reduce driver distraction now.

10 tips to reduce your risks

  1. Review maps and directions prior to driving.
  2. Stow and secure loose objects in their proper place before starting out.
  3. If you want to let people know you are on your way home, send a text before you leave.
  4. Set the destination on the GPS before setting out. Look at a map before you leave so you have an idea of where you are going. Pull over in a safe location if you need to adjust the GPS settings.
  5. If you are tempted to check your phone’s messages, put it where you can’t reach it.
  6. When taking a long trip, stop every few hours to check messages or catch up on social media to prevent FOMO (fear of missing out) which doesn’t only apply to teens. Besides, taking breaks also helps with fatigue.
  7. Use apps available on iTunes or Google Play to disengage your phone while driving.
  8. Institute a farm policy that no one is allowed to use their phones while driving.
  9. Model good behaviour for teens.
  10. Take the pledge to put an end to distracted driving at www.caasco.com/focus.

Watch out for distracted drivers

While farmers should give their full attention to their driving when operating farm machinery on roads, you would also be wise to make allowances for other drivers who may be distracted, says Dean Anderson of Workplace Safety & Prevention Services.

When pulling onto the road and entering a lane of traffic with farm equipment, leave more space since other drivers may not be paying attention, Anderson recommends.

With the difference in speed between cars and farm equipment, cars will close the gap very quickly, which may have deadly results if the other drivers are distracted.

Even if farmers are in the right, having farm equipment damaged when a car runs into the back of it could result in costly downtime, or worse, says Anderson.

Also, when driving at night, Anderson recommends ensuring that lights and the Slow Moving Vehicle sign are clean and visible. Consider having a vehicle with four-way flashers follow you.

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