Driven to distraction

Driven to distraction

Due to our digital lifestyles, it’s believed that humans now have a shorter attention span than goldfish1.

Our shortening attention span has also negatively affected the way we drive and behave on the road. Even though most drivers think they drive safely, distractions can pop up in different shapes and forms.

“In the UK, ‘driver/rider failed to look properly’, was recorded as a major contributory factor in 46% of reported personal injury accidents in 2014,” says Nick Lloyd, Road Safety Manager at Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA).

There are four main types of distractions:

Visual distractions

Visual distractions can be defined as objects or daily events which impair your vision – for example when you have the sun in your eyes or when a motorway display catches your attention. According to a study led by Transport Canada, when windscreen wipers were first introduced in the early 1900s, they were thought to be one of the worst visual distractions, as people were describing the wipers as having a hypnotic effect.

Auditory distractions

Auditory distractions are when the driver is distracted by a sound such as music, or someone talking. Most people can cope with auditory distractions when the noise isn’t too loud, as our living environment trains us to deal with a level of auditory distractions – from being a pupil in a busy classroom, to working in an open plan office during adulthood.

Cognitive distractions

Cognitive distractions occur when a driver is lost in their own thoughts and experiences inattention blindness, also called tunnel vision. This is when the drivers’ eyes are not scanning the environment around them anymore, but are fixed, and staring straight ahead.

Physical distractions

Physical distractions are related to doing something physical such as eating, texting, smoking or even reaching for something in the back seat of the vehicle.

Safe drivers’ confessions

According to our survey2, a staggering 63.9% of the self-proclaimed safe drivers admit to eating or drinking when driving, while 57.4% confess to texting or talking on the phone while behind the wheel.

“It is important to recognise that some activities, such as using a hand held mobile phone (which is obviously illegal) can create multiple types of distraction, in this case biomechanical, auditory and cognitive distraction,” Nick Lloyd goes on to explain. “Using a hands-free phone whilst eliminating the biomechanical distraction will still involve an auditory distraction, and potentially a significant cognitive distraction, depending upon the subject of the conversation,” says Lloyd.

When travelling at 55mph, taking your eyes off the road for only five seconds to text is enough time to cover the length of three football fields3. According to Richard Coteau, from road safety charity Brake, “many drivers have a sense of over-confidence and feel cocooned in their vehicles, so attempting to multi-task is common”, which can increase distraction levels while at the wheel.

Laws have been put in place to help encourage people to focus on their driving no matter how confident or safe they think they are, such as the 2003 law prohibiting texting and driving. We’ve put together a table summarising the different penalties you could be facing if caught not concentrating on the road.

What does the law say?


The UK is not the only country struggling with distractions. In Spain, research suggests that distraction contributed to at least 37% of road crashes in 2008. In the U.S 11% of crashes were due to the driver being distracted (between 2005 and 2007), and in New-Zealand distraction contributes to at least 10% of fatal crashes.

According to Lloyd, countries with the best road safety record are providing well engineered roads, including the segregation of vulnerable road users and education campaigns highlighting the dangers of distraction. The U.K, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands have the safest roads in Europe4.

Dealing with distraction

Most distractions are avoidable, so we’ve put together a list of tips to help prevent distraction:

  1. Pull over: If you need to do something that will take your attention off the road such as make a phone call, smoke a cigarette or eat your breakfast, just take a minute and pull over in a safe area.
  2. Plan your route: Even though technology such as a GPS can be of great help, they can sometimes be distracting. Plan your route in advance so you understand where you need to go before hitting the road.
  3. Make pit stops: If you’re planning to drive for long hours, make pit stops at least every two hours to avoid cognitive distraction or falling asleep!
  4. Be mindful: Don’t listen to music too loud, as it’ll distract you and has been linked to more aggressive driving.
  5. Concentrate on your driving: Understanding what distracts you – whether it’s eating, drinking, texting or thinking about something else than your driving – will help you kick these bad habits and become a better driver.

However, Coteau reminds that “distraction isn’t just an issue for drivers. For people on foot and bicycle, being side-tracked by your mobile, or not being able to hear due to listening to music, or forgetting to hold a child's hand, can be lethal.”

Even though being efficient and multi-tasking is highly valued in today’s society, we need to remember that the human brain is not able to perform two attention demanding tasks simultaneously and efficiently; “negotiating roads needs your full care and attention.”

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Additional Sources

[2]YouGov Survey of 1094 people commissioned by Aviva
[4]Ranking EU Progress on Road Safety. 8th Road safety Performance Index Report, June 2014. European Transport Safety Council

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