Distracted driving caused by people texting and emailing on their cell phones has been a problem for years, but new research confirms that another type of distraction is also causing deadly accidents.

A report to be issued by the Governors Highway Safety Association and General Motors warns that elevated stress levels can impair driver focus and cause a crash.

According to psychologist Charity Truong at Stress and Anxiety Services of New Jersey, this is not surprising.

“For somebody who is having stressful life experiences, they may be thinking about those situations or occupied with them and not putting their full attention on their driving,” she said.

What to do if you’re stressed out

She said one technique people in stressful situations can use to be able to put full focus on operating a motor vehicle, is using what is known as a worry log.

“People can list different worries and anxieties at a time in the day when they’re certainly not driving, and then decide they’re going to get back to that list and review it at another time,” she said.

“They would list the different things that are preoccupying their attention and decide, I’m going to focus on these things at a time when I’m not driving, I’m going to go back to my list later.”

Truong said if you’re dealing with significant stressors in life a daily mindfulness practice, taking a few minutes to breathe and relax can also be very helpful.

Take a moment

“When you do enter the car, before you put the key in the ignition and start moving, so that you know your full attention is going to be on driving in the moment,” she said.

She noted if you are finding yourself becoming stressed out behind the wheel, “pulling over is actually a great option for people if they’re having that intense level of emotion in the moment and cannot focus on the road.”

She said recent research shows since the pandemic began a significant number of people have been struggling with stress and anxiety.

Road rage (male)

“We’re seeing numbers that are just astronomical in the past few years, some reports are saying up to 45% of people are reporting having anxiety,” she said.

Truong stressed if someone is struggling with these issues on an ongoing basis that would be a time to seek help.

“We would never want somebody to drive if they’re exhausted or sleep-deprived or emotional, to that degree that they’re sobbing.”

Driving in a panic

She said stress creates anxiety, and that has the potential to cause a panic attack while driving, but there are therapeutic techniques to help be in the moment.

Data published by the New Jersey State Police shows that during 2020, the most recent year statistics are available, there were 163 fatal motor vehicle accidents caused by driver inattention.

Nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 3,142 people died in distraction-related crashes in the U.S. in 2020, accounting for 8.1% of roadway fatalities.

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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