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Indepth: The most distracting things behind the wheel

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — A Utah Highway Patrol sting this week netted dozens of drivers texting behind the wheel on the freeway.

Reporters rode with spotters in an unmarked van. Those troopers watched out the window into the other cars, and radioed ahead to troopers on the freeway.

“Notice how slow they go when they are using their device,” Lt. Wade Bruer saiid from the front of the van.

The Highway Patrol said the purpose of the operation was not to get more revenue from tickets, but to educate people.

“The biggest thing is to get people to put their cell phones away,” said UHP Lt Todd Royce.

“Statistics show that 9 percent of all crashes are attributed to distracted driving — mainly cellphones,” said Royce. “However, we do know that it’s underreported.”

He thinks a more accurate number would be 20 to 30 percent of all crashes, even upward of 50 percent.

Texting could be the worst distraction, but Lt Royce says there’s so much more.

Pets can distract a driver, he pointed out. And he said troopers have seen people putting on makeup, eating food, and even reading behind the wheel. Navigation systems, the radio, and other car technology can be a problem.

“Anything in the car that removes your eyes from the road is distracting,” said AAA spokesman Michael Blasky.

Different navigation systems

Blasky says he’ll look around in his carpool and see people looking at their phones or messing with the infotainment systems

“There is a high level of distraction out there,” he said.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah have a new study showing just how distracting vehicle infotainment systems can be.

Many have touch screens, heads up displays, gesture controls and voice controls, that are in many cases too distracting, said the study.

Different vehicle offerings

They concluded Google Android and Apple Carplay did better than car manufacturers’ offerings

“Some cars allow you to write on a write-pad or touchpad. It doesn’t take rocket scientist to say that is not good,” said U of U researcher Francesco Biondi.

Others have up to 100 functions or options on the center stack and 30 on the driving wheel.

It’s not just your eyes leaving the road, or your hands leaving the wheel, it’s also dangerous to have your mind leaving the task at hand.

“People engaged in a cell phone conversation not only performed poorly at driving, but had a poor recollection of their performance,” said Biondi. “We don’t think we are that bad.”

Biondi was almost hit while jogging this week by a driver talking on the phone who ran a red light downtown.

“When we are in conversation or interacting with touch interfaces, we are in a bubble and so focused on what we are doing, it’s like blindness,” he said.

Blasky says passengers could be the most dangerous distraction for teen drivers. Crashes go up a staggering amount in the summer when teens have more than one passenger, he said.

Passengers, pets, pictures, podcasts, navigation, streaming…

“Even drowsy driving is huge and underreported distraction,” said Blasky.

He says people should take care of everything before the car starts moving, like entering an address, or even putting your water bottle in place.

Utah law says you cannot manipulate a phone while the vehicle is in motion, but officers say they see lots of people who start to text at a red light, then the light changes and they roll forward while still on their phone.

Lt Royce says people need to change their habits.

“Your main focus is driving,” he said.