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Flaura Winston, MD, PhD Headshot

Why Crashes Don't Happen in a 'Blink of an Eye'

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How many times have you heard someone describe a crash as "coming out the blue," or in the "blink of an eye?" Although perceived that way, what really happened is much different. Driving experts know it takes only three seconds of attentive driving to turn "It happened so fast; there was nothing I could do" into "I saw it coming." When driving while distracted, you rob yourself of this time cushion. You miss relevant cues, and then, in what you think of as a "blink of an eye," you are in a crash that could have been avoided.

Take the all-too-common, rear-end crash scenario. A driver cuts in front of you, and after a few seconds, slams on his brakes. Were you prepared and able to respond or were you caught off-guard?

In other words, were you ready for the unexpected -- known as "situation awareness"-- or were you distracted -- looking at, speaking/listening to or thinking about something other than driving?

The safe, skilled driver perceives her driving environment through relentless, focused scanning and notices the driver on her right is about to make a move. She comprehends this as a potential hazard and shifts attention to the most relevant elements of the road -- the immediate space cushion around her car. She predicts that the driver may cut her off and acts quickly. She releases the throttle (after checking her rear-view mirror) and, if necessary, brakes with sufficient pressure to try to regain a three-second following distance. When she sees the other car's brake lights, she is ready, calmly but assuredly braking to avoid crashing. She is showing "situation awareness," a much-needed skill for safe driving.

Although a relatively recent term, "situation awareness" has its roots in the military and has been successfully applied to diverse fields, from auto and aviation safety to surgery. Soldiers, drivers, air traffic controllers and anesthesiologists need to keep their mind and eyes on task to be prepared to act. Could you imagine a fighter pilot in a dogfight or a football player after the snap texting on his cell phone?

I wish that hazards had alarms, blinking neon lights and a five-minute warning, but they don't. They're often hidden (by a parked vehicle or a row of bushes) or unexpected (like an erratic driver or a change in traffic patterns). And distractions aren't limited to cell phones -- they are anything that takes your attention away from the road. You might get away with distraction once, twice, maybe 20 times because you're experienced and you know how to scan, recognize a hazard and respond. But, eventually, the odds are that distracted driving will lead you to miss a hidden hazard and crash.

For teens, the odds are much higher. In fact, they are involved in fatal crashes at four times the rate of adult drivers, and for all new drivers (of any age) the high initial risk of crashing doesn't level off to a much lower rate for several years. CIRP@CHOP research showed that 75 percent of serious teen crashes were due to a critical teen driver error, with three common errors accounting for nearly half of all serious crashes. I call these the Big Three -- driving too fast for road conditions (including following too closely), failing to detect a hazard and distraction -- not risk-taking or aggressive driving. It's not about their inability to pay attention -- most 18-year-olds can pay better attention than older adults (unless, of course, they have special needs that affect attention or impulse control challenges, like ADHD). It's just that it takes years to develop situation awareness and other crucial driving skills.

Specifically, new drivers need to learn how to scan for hazards -- observing their surroundings far ahead of the vehicle and to the sides so that they have sufficient warning to react and avoid a potential crash. And to know how to respond - like how to adjust their speed for road conditions such as dense traffic, blind curves and poorly lit or slippery roads. Most important, they need to drive free of distractions. Parents can help by working with their teens to set, monitor and enforce driving rules, including no texting while driving (all drivers) and no peer passengers (new drivers). Researchers are also developing promising online training to increase teens' situation awareness, as well as other crucial driving skills. We are optimistic that this research will lead to safer teen drivers.

As Emese Nagy, a developmental psychologist, recently stated, "... we experience the world in about 3-second time frames." From goodbye waves to hugs, three seconds seems to be the "temporal unit of life that defines our perception of the present moment". So, we all need to be present when we are driving and make the most of those 3 seconds -- they can buy you a lifetime of hugs.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.