Driver distractions

Key facts

  • In 2015, out of 1,469 fatal crashes in Britain that resulted in one or more deaths, the police recorded 400 incidences of the contributory factor of “failure to look” and a further 101 incidences of the contributory factors of driver in-vehicle distractions, distractions outside the vehicle, and phone use. [1]
  • Out of 11,000 drivers observed by academics conducting a study on roads in St Albans, England, 1 in 6 were found to be engaged in a distracting activity, such as talking on a phone, or to a passenger, or smoking. The study found younger drivers more likely to be engaged in distracting activities. [2]
  • A recent survey by Brake and Direct Line revealed a third of drivers admit to eating at the wheel and one in 10 suffered a near-miss because they were distracted by food while driving [3].

Introduction

Driving requires the full attention of the driver at all times. Hazards can arise at any time, and vehicles can travel many metres in a short amount of time. Yet many drivers are distracted and inattentive.

In 2015, out of 1,469 fatal crashes in Britain that resulted in one or more deaths, the police recorded 400 incidences of the contributory factor of “failure to look” and a further 101 contributory factors of driver in-vehicle distractions, distractions outside the vehicle, and phone use. [4]

Out of 11,000 drivers observed on roads in St Albans, England, 1 in 6 were found to be engaged in a distracting activity, such as talking on a phone, or to a passenger, or smoking. The 2014 Cranfield University study found younger drivers more likely to be engaged in distracting activities. [5]

A recent survey by Brake and Direct Line revealed many drivers admit to performing distracting secondary tasks. [6]

One of the most dangerous distractions is covered in more detail in our phones and screens fact page. There are many other driver distractions inside and outside the vehicle [7]. Distractions can involve any one, or more, of the below:

  • Visual (reading infotainment screens and sat navs, looking at objects and people outside the vehicle unrelated to the driving task);
  • Mental (thinking about something else, conversations with passengers and phone calls);
  • Auditory (listening to someone on the phone, music and noises outside the vehicle); and
  • Physical (typing, smoking, eating and drinking). [8] [9]

Distractions impede driver ability to spot hazards and react in time. It is about overloading a driver with too much to do and breakdowns in their attention. [10] Distractions vary in effect on drivers, depending on timing, intensity, duration, frequency, resumability (the extent to which the driving task can be halted and resumed efficiently) and the ‘hang-over effect’ (the mental distraction that remains once a task is completed). [11]

Any road user can become distracted, including vulnerable road users (for example, people on foot or bicycle) [12] [13]. This fact emphasises the importance of drivers watching out for people on foot and bicycles doing unpredictable and dangerous things.

Risk of distraction and inattention

Drivers may choose to divide their attention from the task at hand because they erroneously believe they are in control and have time to react if danger arises. There is academic evidence that drivers cannot divide their attention between driving and a secondary task without significantly reducing their driving performance. They also cannot estimate their own levels of distraction effectively. [14]

Academics have also pointed to evidence of drivers falling into “consequence traps” and “conditioning traps”. A consequence trap is when a driver knows the risk, but succumbs to an overriding temptation of an immediate reward (for example reaching for a flask of coffee, or changing the music from a track they don’t like). A conditioning trap is when a driver knows the risk, but has “got away with it” on numerous occasions before, so takes the risk again on the presumption that nothing bad will happen this time either.[15]

In-vehicle distractions

As well as phones and screens, a selection of other causes of distraction are listed below.

Read more: Read our fact-page on on driver distraction caused by mobile phones and screens

Driver mindset

When using roads, driver thoughts can easily wander to things other than the safety of the task at hand. Driving, particularly on a familiar route, can be perceived as something we can do on semi-automatic, or a car can become a place where we consciously decide to “think about other things”, such as work or relationships, or reflect on a memory.  This can be particularly the case in a “busy world” where there is little “down time” to be on our own and sit with our own thoughts. In one study, more than half of drivers’ thoughts (“what are you thinking about?”) were on subjects unrelated to driving. [16]

Vehicle technology

Increasingly, vehicles, particularly the most high-end vehicles, are being fitted with automated technology. Academics warn that certain kinds of automated technology, that aim to remove driving demands, “may tempt drivers to engage in distracting activities” [17] They may encourage ‘disengagement’ with the driving task leading to inattention (such as the driver’s mind wandering or purposely choosing to do something else) [18] and difficulty then reengaging in time should a hazard arise.

For example, automated “cruise control” systems aim to enable the vehicle to maintain speed and distance from a vehicle in front. Manufacturers warn drivers these systems require driver attention at all times. A driver died in the USA when their Tesla collided with a truck. Tesla said: "neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied." [19]

Music

As an auditory distraction, music reduces driver attention on the road. There is evidence that the more complex/loud the music is, the greater the distraction. [20] Recent studies have suggested that upbeat music increases both driver error and aggressive driving. [21]

Eating and drinking

Eating and drinking can be both a cognitive distraction and a physical distraction involving removing at least one hand from the wheel [22]. A study has shown eating or drinking at the wheel can increase driver reaction times by 44% [23]. A recent survey by Brake and Direct Line revealed a third of drivers admit to eating at the wheel and one in 10 had suffered a near-miss because they were distracted by food while driving. The worst offenders are drivers aged 25-34, with more than half of drivers (55%) in this age bracket admitting to unwrapping and eating food at the wheel. [24] Past research has suggested drivers who eat and drink at the wheel can be twice as likely to crash [25].

Smoking

Several studies [26] have found smoking while driving increases crash risk. Accessing and lighting a cigarette within the car causes physical and mental distraction. The smoke from the lit cigarette, from the driver or passenger, could impair the driver’s vision, and a cigarette falling into the driver’s lap or onto a seat could cause distraction.

Research into the proportion of drivers in the UK engaging in distracting behaviour when behind the wheel revealed smoking was the second most frequently observed distraction during the study, second only to ‘talking to a passenger’.[27]

Driver inattention

A driver may develop a habit of failing to look properly, particularly on a route that is familiar to them and often quiet / empty of traffic, but lack ‘metacognitive awareness’ about their behaviour (they think they look properly). Their attention may be restricted, diverted, misprioritised, neglected or cursory. [28]

It is common to hear that an experienced driver “looked but didn’t see”. Studies of experienced drivers have found the attention they give to motorcycles (in terms of duration of gaze) is less than the length of gaze they give to cars. Novice drivers, by contrast, were found to give cars and motorcycles equal “gaze lengths”, demonstrative of more care. [29]

This may explain why motorcyclists involved in crashes are often hit by drivers pulling out from side junctions. Academics describe the motorcycle, in such an incident, as a “low spatial frequency” object (a narrow object that is blurred into the background unless carefully sought). It is harder to see, and requires a longer fixation by the driver to see it. [30]

Familiarity of a route may also lead to drivers perhaps actively looking at other things to keep themselves aroused, and missing hazards for that reason. A study of the brain patterns of police drivers undertaking the same simulated drive twice, found a “significant reduction in attentional areas of the brain” and concluded route familiarity reduces activation in the brain [31]. A similar study tested the attention of a driving instructor undertaking a real road journey 28 times, and found a “decrease in attention to safety-relevant aspects”. [32]

As well as this “inattentional blindness” (the tendency not to see unattended things), there is an additional psychological blindness called “change blindness”. This is when someone is familiar with a particular situation, and doesn’t notice when that situation changes (for example, when a road sign is changed). It has been found that people have a much better chance of noticing change if they focus for longer, and that more familiarity with a road leads to a shorter glance duration and heightened risk. [33]

Age and distraction

Recent studies have shown younger drivers (17-29) and older drivers (over 65) have a significantly and consistently higher risk of causing a road crash due to distracted driving, and certain types of driver distraction have a greater influence on these age groups than any other [34].

While visual distractions affect drivers of all ages, younger drivers are more likely to have their driving performance negatively affected by auditory distractions, e.g. listening to music. [35]

Younger drivers are also more likely to succumb to other distractions within the vehicle including checking social media, messaging, or paying attention to peer passengers. Recent studies have suggested the presence of a peer passenger can be associated with a reduction in visual scanning, by male drivers in particular, due to cognitive distraction triggered by either the physical presence of the passenger or the perceived expectations of the passenger. [36] 

Warning and catching distracted drivers.

DDDR systems aim to detect the presence of distraction (or fatigue) and send a warning to the driver to stop and rest. Eye movements can be monitored by a camera pointed at the driver. This information can be combined with detection of wider head movements. Levels of heart rate and brain function are also possible to monitor. Systems monitoring people in such ways (particularly eye movements) and then issuing a warning are commonly available as an aftermarket product, marketed to fleet operators. 

Steering and braking patterns can also give some indication of inattention, and some new vehicles come fitted with DDDR systems that monitor these patterns and warn the driver.

Increasingly, companies with at-work drivers are fitting their vehicles with cameras that watch the driver. In October 2016, lorry driver Thomasz Kroker was jailed for killing four people after ploughing into their car while changing music on his phone; his actions were recorded on camera, providing evidence of his distraction to the police and courts.


End notes

[1] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for transport, 2016, RAS50001
[2] Sullman, M, A roadside study of observable driver distractions, Cranfield University, 2014
[3] Eating at the Wheel, Brake and Direct Line Survey, 2016
[4] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for transport, 2016, RAS50001
[5] Sullman, M, A roadside study of observable driver distractions, Cranfield University, 2014
[6] Eating at the Wheel, Brake and Direct Line Survey, 2016
[7] Beanland, V. et al, Driver inattention and driver distraction in serious casualty crashes: data from the Australian National Crash In-depth Study, 2013
[8] Young, K, et al, Driver Distraction: a review of the Literature, 2003
[9] Highway Code: rules 148-150, Department for Transport
[10] Lee, J., Dynamics of driver distraction: the process of engaging and disengaging, 2014
[11] Kinnear, N. et al, Understanding how drivers learn to anticipate risk on the road: A laboratory experiment of affective anticipation of road hazards, 2013
[12] Fitzpatrick, C. et al, The prevalence of distracted walking and its effect on driver behaviour, 2016
[13] Boufous, S. et al, Circumstances of on-road single-vehicle cyclist crashes in the Australian Capital Territory, 2015
[14] Young, K. et al, Driver distraction: theory, effects and mitigation, 2008
[15] Lee, J., Dynamics of driver distraction: the process of engaging and disengaging, 2014
[16] Nicola Starkey, University of Waikato, International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, Brisbane, 2016
[17] Merat, N., & Lee, J. D., Preface to the Special Section on Human Factors and Automation in Vehicles: Designing highly automated vehicles with the driver in mind, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 54(5), 681–686. 2012
[18] Lee, J., Dynamics of driver distraction: the process of engaging and disengaging, 2014
[19] A tragic loss, Tesla, 2016
[20] Brodsky, W., The effects of music tempo on simulating driving performance on simulated driving performance and vehicular behaviour, 2001
[21] Brodsky, W & Slor, Z., Background music as a risk factor for distraction among young novice drivers, 2012
[22] Jamson, S., Driving with one hand on the wheel: a fatal distraction, 2012
[23] Eating at the Wheel, Brake and Direct Line Survey, 2016
[24] Ibid
[25] Young, M. et al, Crash dieting: the effects of eating and drinking on driving performance, 2008
[26] Young, K, et al, Driver Distraction: a review of the Literature, 2003
[27] Sullman, M., An observational study of driver distraction in England, 2012
[28] Beanland, V. & Chan, EHC., The relationship between sustained inattentional blindness and working memory capacity, 2016
[29] David Crundall, Nottingham Trent University, International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, Brisbane, 2016
[30] Ibid
[31] Mader et al, 2009, International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, Brisbane, 2016
[32] David Crundall, Nottingham Trent University, International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, Brisbane, 2016
[33] Marieke Martens, University of Twente, International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology, Brisbane, 2016

 

Page last updated: November 2016