If I say “distracted driving,” you’re going to get the mental picture of a teenager texting, right? But it’s not only about that. We do plenty of other things that distract us from the road ahead. And it’s not just kids — 83 percent of teenagers say their own parents engage in unsafe driving with them in the car.

Eating potato chips at the wheel creates greasy hands, which require napkins, and suppose you drop the bag?

Eating potato chips at the wheel creates greasy hands, which require napkins, and suppose you drop the bag? (Photo: Jeremiah Carter/flickr)

So here are five things we all do in the car, not just teenagers:

1. Drivers looking at passengers while talking to them. This is exaggerated to absurd degrees in movies, where drivers barely even glance at the road. But we’re all somewhat guilty, because it’s human nature to look someone in the eye when conversing with them. Cut it out! They know you’re driving and won’t think you’re being shifty just because your visual attention is elsewhere.

2. Applying makeup/reading directions/finding something. The first one is hair-raising, because not only is the process distracting, but you actually have to look at yourself in the mirror while putting on a face. Trying to read maps, or to follow printed directions, can really take your attention away too. And we all have groped the floor looking for some small object that’s fallen out of our reach. Right then, finding it is the most important thing in the world...

If you're distracted you won't even see the sign.

If you're distracted you won't even see the sign. (Photo: Dave Emerson/flickr)

3. Playing with the infotainment. Despite the concern about distracted driving, carmakers are making their stereos more complicated and demanding — some even do away with volume knobs. The problem is compounded by today's short attention spans — people don't even make it through one song before switching stations. The all-purpose solution is voice commands, but aside from Siri, few of these systems work intuitively. I’ve seen experts embarrass themselves trying to make it work. It’s not rocket science; we need good controls mounted on the steering wheel, and knobs that are easy to adjust without looking at them.

4. Watching the scenery. America’s a fascinating place. There are billboards, people walking dogs, food trucks and beautiful members of the opposite sex. All of it is more interesting than the taillights ahead, but much more dangerous if it takes your eyes off the road.

5. Eating/drinking in the car. My own wife is adept at this, but I end up with ketchup all over my shirt. And that means more distraction as I try to clean it off with the napkins that are in that bag somewhere. I’ve opted for zero tolerance — no food or drink in the car, at least not my food or drink.

All in all, we manage to distract ourselves pretty well, even without cellphones getting into the act. Have you heard about the car-based coffeemakers? And as I mentioned above, teenagers are saying that their parents are just as guilty of distracted driving as everyone else. Eighty six percent say their parents talk on cellphones while driving, 80 percent say their parents speed, 21 percent say they don't wear seat belts. A modest 40 percent text, but maybe that's because they haven't caught up with the technology yet. 

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

5 car distractions (that aren't cellphones)
Texting teens get the bad rap, but most people are guilty of taking their eyes off the road for a variety of reasons.