Conquer Distracted Driving by Becoming an ACE

EHS Today - April 2014
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

Distracted driving is currently one of the major causes of accidents. What is even more alarming is that, while almost all other categories of accidents are decreasing, distracted driving accident rates are still on the rise. Although cell phones are responsible for a large percentage of such accidents, they are not the only contributory factor. Longer commutes in cities and more travel hours in work settings further complicate the issue. Many organizations attempt to address the issues with either new policies or new training, or a combination of the two.

The policy approach to reducing distracted driving almost always involves limiting or forbidding cell-phone use while driving on the job. These policies have proven to be effective, but not sufficient enough to prevent this class of accidents. The limitations largely fall into two categories: 1) workers still use phones while driving off the job, and 2) limiting cell-phone use does not address other distractions of driving.

While most of the distracted-driving training is well conceived, it is not necessarily memorable. The focus seems to have been on presentation rather than retention. If the concepts do not stick in people's minds, they will not find root in their safety habits. For this reason, consider adopting the acronym ACE and using it to make distracted driving concepts stick.

The 'A' of ACE stands for "Attention." Many training modules for distracted driving refers to this category of distraction with terms such as "conscious", "cognitive" or "mental". While such terms are technically accurate, they are neither memorable nor prescriptive. Avoiding such distractions requires paying attention to your driving. Anything that distracts your attention from your driving compromises your safety. Phone conversations, even on hands-free devices, diverts driver attention. Likewise, so do conversations with passengers, listening to recorded materials that require mental activity, or simply letting your mind drift deeply into non-driving thoughts. The first step of being a driving ACE is to maintain your attention on your driving.

The 'C' of ACE stands for "Control." Other terminology used for this category is "manual distraction" or "physical distraction" and, again, may be descriptive, but is not prescriptive. Anything that requires a driver to reach may take their hands off the wheel or compromise their ideal driving position. Thinking about such reaching before starting a trip can result in better locating of such things as sunglasses or water bottles that may be needed along the way. Wearing a seatbelt ensures that a driver cannot be easily moved out of the driver's seat in a collision or skid, thus improving control. Setting a cruise control and crossing your legs while driving makes it take more time to break in an emergency and, thus, reduces control. The second step in being a driving ACE is to maintain control of the vehicle and manage issues that could compromise control.

The 'E' of ACE stands for "Eyes on the road." Many training modules refer to this as "visual distractions", which is an adequate descriptor, but does not provide a memorable label for the solution to the problem. When drivers remember the term, "eyes on the road," then anything that takes their eyes off the road becomes the distraction. Looking at a cell-phone display, reading a map, looking around the vehicle for your sunglasses, staring at something on or near the road (such as police cars or wreckers) or simply taking in the scenery takes the driver's eyes off the road. Some driver's training suggests that a driver begin counting seconds when they look away from the road and make sure they return their focus to the road after no more than three seconds. Other trainings recognize the need to focus and scan, i.e. to look at the traffic lane and stripes, but then glance at the bigger picture of the entire roadway occasionally to avoid visual fatigue. Many approaches can be effective, but only if the driver first remembers the principle of "eyes on the road."

It is not sufficient that these three principles of avoiding distracted driving are internalized; it is also critical to emphasize that all three principles apply to every situation. Doing one or two of these things does not make you a driving ACE; you must always pay attention to all three. Being an ACE is also not just a matter of what you do while you are driving; it requires a driver to pre-plan their drive to minimize distractions and to be willing to stop if distractions build up and cannot be addressed on the move.

Since most people react emotionally before they react logically, consider beginning the training session with a story of a person impacted by a distracted-driving incident, to make the training experience touch on human emotions. The story can be that of the victim of such an incident, or the perpetrator. The internet is rife with videos of the families of distracted-driving incidents and young people who killed others while texting and driving. Such stories put a human face on the training and appeal to the emotions of wanting to avoid such negative consequences in your own life. After the emotions say, "This is important," it is easier to communicate the methodology of how to accomplish the desired results. When emotions precede logic, cognitive functions are potentially heightened and retention is improved.

The most effective distracted-driving programs combine new regulations for cell phone use with training that carefully avoids overloading the attendees with material and instead focuses on creating a touching and memorable methodology of addressing these risks. The training stresses the three most common types of distractions and prescribes how to address them. It makes the rationale for following this training emotional as well as logical. It connects the three distractions into a triad of precautions that must be remembered separately but always taken together. The success is not measured by the breadth or depth of knowledge, but by the transfer of usable techniques that instantly become new knowledge and quickly become new habits.

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

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