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Driver distraction: an increasing factor in road crashes

23 March 2016

Driver distraction has been a growing phenomenon in recent years and it is becoming a major contributing factor in road crashes. With the installation of more and more devices in cars, and especially the increased use of mobile telephones while driving, the problem is likely to get worse.

The European Commission has recently published a study on good practices for reducing risks caused by distraction.

Driving requires continuous attention to the road and traffic, as well as good vehicle control. Not paying full attention can lead to a loss of control, thus putting the driver and other road users in danger. Drivers get distracted when they are occupied with other activities. Their attention can be attracted by people or activities inside or outside the car. They may also become tired or daydream.

As Shaun Helman of the Transport Research Laboratory explains, ‘The term "driver distraction" is used widely in road safety. Although there is currently no common definition, it is generally agreed that a driver is "distracted" if their attention is focused on something other than driving. This, of course, must have consequences for safety; however, estimating the size of the problem is difficult, because different countries use different ways of coding distraction in their accident databases, and some countries don’t even collect such data. The best estimate we have is that around 10-30 % of road accidents (in the EU) have distraction of some kind as a contributory factor.’

While sources of distraction are many and varied, there are four basic types:

  • visual distraction (e.g. looking away from the road)
  • auditory distraction (e.g. a phone ringtone)
  • biomechanical distraction (e.g. tuning the radio)
  • cognitive distraction (e.g. daydreaming)

Dr Helman added,  ‘Technology may also help to reduce distraction – systems such as automated braking and lane keeping can help to mitigate the effects of distraction, and in the future higher levels of automation may even remove the effects of distraction altogether. For now however, it will be important that all drivers understand the risks and the unacceptability of being distracted while driving. In short, you cannot do two things at once, if one of those things is driving.’

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