Driver Distraction

Distraction There is much in the popular press, driving, and other publications with regards to driver distractions. This is mainly due to the use of mobile phones in vehicles, and new in vehicle text reading devices. However, increasingly scientific research is revealing the dangers of other forms driver multi-tasking that are associated with increased in-vehicle technology.

This article covers:

  • What is Distraction?
  • Types of Distraction
  • The Effects of Distraction
  • The Law
  • Managing Distraction

What Is Distraction

A driver is said to be distracted, if he or she attempts to concentrate on a second activity whilst driving. People can, and do multi-task, after all, driving involves this to some degree. However there will always become a point, when this will becomes dangerous, whilst at the wheel of a motor vehicle. The point where distraction becomes dangerous depends on of the capabilities of the individual, and the type, types, or combination of distractions, combined with the prevailing road and traffic conditions.

Distraction can be either driver initiated, where the driver starts carrying out a secondary activity or non-driver initiated, such as a loud noise from a low flying helicopter outside of the vehicle

Types of Driver Distraction

There are four basic types of driver distraction:

  • Auditory
  • Biomechanical
  • Visual
  • Cognitive

Visual distraction occurs when a driver sees objects or events; keys that light up on a cell phone, texts coming through, and these prevent the driver from processing information related to driving. At least one motor manufacturer is advertising a heads up in-car text reading display, as a sales feature, an idea that one senior Traffic Police Officer that we spoke to in Kent thought was “a ridiculously irresponsible device”.

Biomechanical distraction can occur, when a driver is involved in a physical task, such as holding a tuning a radio, or holding cell phone.

An auditory distraction is a sound which prevents a driver from focusing on the driving task. Loud bang, outside of the vehicle, loud music inside, trying to hear someone talking on a mobile phone are all examples.

A Cognitive distraction occurs when a driver is thinking about something, unrelated to driving the vehicle. This form of distraction is particularly dangerous, as it has been proven that those found in a state of cognitive impairment, tend to fixate (stare), and start to develop a form of tunnel vision…highly dangerous.

The Effect of Distraction

Some activities, can create a distraction, which incorporates some or all of the above; potentially a critical storm. Using a hand-held mobile phone, is one such example.

The biomechanical is the act of holding the device, visual, perhaps dialling the number, auditory, trying to hear, in a poor reception area, and the cognitive, which could be thinking about the next big sale, involving maths etc. Mobile phones on hand free are still very distracting, as cognitive, and auditory, will still combine, in varying degrees.

The effect of a distraction is to prevent the driver from giving full attention to risk managing the driving task.

Drivers that are cognitively distracted, tend to lose situational awareness, concentrating straight ahead, thus losing vital information from the back, and sides of the vehicle. As such, hazards are detected much later, than they otherwise would have been, if the driver had not been distracted.

The Law

Section 149 of the Highway Code states:

You must exercise proper control of your vehicle at all times.

This is a bit of a catch all really. Distracted drivers could be reported for a range of different offences, anything from Inconsiderate, to Dangerous driving.

In the case of an employers, when a driver is driving for work, whether in a company or own vehicle, the H.S.E. expects the employers to “ensure the health and safety of an employee, as far as reasonably practicable”, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

So, having a policy allowing use of mobile telecommunications equipment in a vehicle, on a hand free basis, could land an employer in hot water, should an employee be injured, or injure anyone else, whilst being distracted, using hands free mobile communication equipment.

Using information provided by mobile phone companies’ cells, it is also quite easy for the authorities, to prove the use of the mobile communications equipment, and potentially lie that use to a particular situation, involving an accident, as a result of driver distraction.

Managing Distraction

Distraction is always going to be a difficult risk to manage. As always, it is a risk management exercise.

Think: Risk (probability and consequences)

Some distracting activities, are carried out without a second thought, and 9 times out of ten, have no consequences. Then, one day, the highway has its revenge.

An example would be a swig of water, on the move, which could avert your eyes and concentration from the road, at a critical point. Ask yourself; is it really worth hitting a child, for a swig of water, when you could so easily pull over?