It’s been nearly eight years since Sangeena Sharma’s crash, but the reason behind why it happened made a lasting impression on Sharma and her family.
It was the afternoon of October 14th, 2010 and Sharma was talking on her cell phone as she drove alone to her daughter’s school. She had just dropped off her kids off at an activity and was heading to the school for parent-teacher conferences. It was something she had done countless times before, but this time she took a new route she didn’t normally drive.
It was likely the mixture of the two— an unfamiliar road and her mind concentrating on the phone conversation with her husband— that caused Sharma to fail to see the stop sign and collide with another car in the intersection. Sharma believes she was traveling about 50 mph, as the impact of the crash was strong enough to cause her car to rollover on its top.
Sharma remembers the airbags deploying and being suspended upside down— held in place only by her seatbelt— after the crash. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, but luckily neither she nor the passenger in the other car was seriously injured.
Sharma knows she was lucky and also knows it was her lack of attention that caused her not to see the stop sign.
“Driving distracted —whether on the phone, hands-free, or doing something else— can take your focus away from knowing your surroundings and lifesaving signs,” says Sharma. “Sometimes it’s not you who’s at fault, but it’s just as important to keep your eyes out for other drivers who might miss signs.”
Dr. Dan McGehee, director or the National Advanced Driving Simulator Laboratories and expert on distracted driving says that driving inattention has been around since the beginning of driving, but now we are filling that potential void with our smartphones.
“Cognitive distraction is the mental distraction that occurs when you’re talking on the phone while you are driving,” says McGehee. “Your mind is talking to somebody else—sometimes those conversations can be more emotional than others— and your mind is off of the road instead of concentrating on the vehicles ahead.”
McGehee and other experts in the area of distracted driving say this belief that a driver can multitask while driving is the reason for the rise in distracted driving crashes.
“We can’t multitask,” says McGehee. “People think ‘Well, I can text on the phone or talk on the phone,’ but what we do is we switch back and forth essentially, a spotlight that moves back and forth quickly, and where things go wrong is during that transition from looking down at the phone, then we have to transition back to the road.”
Sharma’s children were elementary-school age at the time, and were told that their mom wasn’t able to pick them up that evening because she had a flat tire. Now that they’re teenagers, they know about the accident, and distraction-free driving is a common topic of discussion. Sharma believes setting a good example starts with parents.
“Because kids usually learn from what they see, I keep my phone away while driving,” says Sharma. “If there is an absolute need to answer the phone or look into something, I let them operate my phone. We’ve talked about pulling over if needed when driving by ourselves.”
Even though years have passed since Sharma’s accident, she still has vivid memories of that fall day, and realizes things could have ended very differently.
“It was a horrific experience but I feel very lucky to have gotten out of it without any injury,” says Sharma. “My family and friends have also learned from my experience and take all necessary precautions as not everybody gets that second chance.”