Doggone distraction: Driving with pets

Spencer McDonald
He was about 50, I figured, and the pickup truck that he was driving was unremarkable. In fact, there was nothing that would have drawn my attention to the vehicle as I slowly passed in the fast lane, if it hadn’t been for the fluffy, white head stuck out of the driver side window, and the panting smile with pink tongue lapping at the wind from over the driver’s arm.

He had a fluffy, little rat-dog on his lap. Talk about distracted driving!

Driving is easy. I mean, how hard can it be? I taught myself on a “three on the tree” column shift, 1953 Pontiac four-door. That’s right. I taught myself in a field across the street from my house. You see, my best buddy Mark’s father had somehow ended up with this car and gave it to us kids. I was the oldest, so I got to drive. The field was about a half-acre and there were few hazards — just a couple of large rocks, a tree, a pond with some ducks and one sheep.

We took the doors off the Pontiac because we thought that would be funny and all the neighbourhood kids would load up. Around the field we would go, bouncing and laughing through the duck pond, to the dismay of the sheep as well as the ducks!

I was 14 years old. Driving was easy.

The trouble is that actually manipulating a car is so easy that essentially anyone can do it (even with a dog on your lap) so we soon forget that to do all this driving stuff at high speed with many other drivers on intersecting roadways where we are all going to different destinations is a trifle more challenging. And risky.

The latest focus about driving distraction is on mobile devices like cellphones and GPS units. But distracted driving has been around as long as cars have, and the ways that we distract ourselves are innumerable. Eating, shaving, reading and yes, dogs on our laps. My personal “pet” peeve.

We maintain the idea that driving is so easy that we can do it and manage a bunch of other tasks at the same time. We see driving as “down time” where we can do any number of other things to catch up on our busy lives, but the fact is, while manipulating a vehicle is easy, driving is difficult. At least driving well and safely is.

Restricting the use of handheld devices may be a step in the right direction, but that is not our real problem. The reason driving seems so easy, is that the vehicle control part is an overlearned behaviour that we accomplish largely with muscle memory. We can do it unconsciously and that is one of the reasons why we can be either the safest driver or the most dangerous one depending on how we take advantage of muscle memory.

The muscle memory part of driving is easy to understand. When you want to slow or stop, you don’t think “How do I do that?” You just push the brake pedal without having to think about it any more than you have to think about how to walk. You just do it. Steering and acceleration are the same. We just do it.

We have all driven a familiar route maybe from work to home and arrived without remembering parts of the route. We just did it with our muscle memory, unconsciously — and we did it safely. As long as there are no surprises and we are aware, albeit unconsciously, of what’s going on, everything works just fine.

The difficult part of driving is not steering and putting on the brakes; it’s the interaction with other road users and we can’t rely on muscle memory to do it well. It takes focus, awareness and attention. If we are vigilant in our attention, when the unexpected happens, we see it and react, using muscle memory and having a chance of avoiding a conflict. If we are just relying on muscle memory to drive and not paying attention, we are going to crash.

Restricting handheld devices is only a partial solution. To solve the problem of cognitive distraction, that is, taking our mind off driving and not just occupying our hands with other tasks, we need to stop attending to other tasks that pull our attention away from driving, such as talking to another person using hands free technology.

Now, before you start telling me that conversations with passengers should stop too, you should know that this is different. Someone in the car with you can see what you are doing as you drive and the conversation naturally is interrupted when your full attention is required.

Unfortunately, the number and type of potential distractions are beyond the scope of any type of specific legislation and the ability to enforce it.

The best way to prevent driving distractions from ruining your day (or life) is to think.

Consider if what you are doing as you drive is stealing your attention from the important task of avoiding conflict with everyone else. Personal responsibility without reliance on laws and rules is what we should all strive for.

That, and not taking Fluffy for a ride on your lap.