Why distracted driving affects your safety

Close up of car stereo with hand adjusting volume dial.

Published 19 January 2023
Last updated 25 January 2023

In this blog we’ll explore distracted driving. Find out how it can affect your safety and what you can do to avoid it.

Picture the scene. You’re out in the car, driving on a road you know well. The sun is shining, you’ve got your favourite tunes on the radio, and everything is just fine with the world.

Then the unthinkable happens: the DJ stops playing music you like and sticks on something horrible. You can’t stand the singer, the chords, the melody – anything. You have to change the station and get back to something decent. You start jabbing the controls in a feverish attempt to get the job done. But you can’t find what you’re looking for and you end up thinking more about the radio and less about your driving.

What happens next? Well, maybe nothing at all. You might get lucky and find that those precious seconds you spend with your eyes off the road lead to nothing more than irritation. But are you prepared to take that risk?

What is distracted driving?

Some very clever people have looked at this and determined that distracted driving is anything that takes your attention away from the “driving task.” It might be changing the radio station, dealing with noisy passengers, fiddling with a mobile phone, programming the Sat-Nav while you’re driving. Or maybe it’s the thoughts you’re having – good or bad, but anything that stops you focusing on the road is a distraction.

But why does any of this matter? Well, it turns out that your brain has something the boffins call a ‘fixed capacity to process information coming in from multiple sources.’ It sounds scary, but basically it means that there’s a point at which it gets overloaded with information. For example, if you use your mobile phone while you’re driving, your brain’s capacity is stretched to the limit as it tries to process everything - like an overworked computer.

At this point, things get dangerous. In fact, according to a study published in 2017 by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) being distracted ‘can make drivers less aware of other road users [...] and less observant of road rules such as speed limits and junction controls.’

Not good – particularly if your lack of attention ends up causing a collision. According to the Transport Research Laboratory in the UK, using a mobile phone at the wheel means your reaction times slow by 30%, making you more dangerous than someone who’s driving while over the UK drink-drive limit.

Now, you might think that you’re different. Perhaps you’ve answered a text message at the wheel – but you don’t do it very often. Perhaps you think that your driving is better than average and the risk of getting caught is low. Perhaps you don’t really believe that anyone is silly enough to allow distractions to get in the way of safe driving?

Well, back in 2016, Direct Line Insurance and the road safety organisation Brake, released a study of the behaviour of 11,000 drivers in the St Albans (Hertfordshire) area. They reported that 1 in 6 of those motorists were engaged in distracted driving, with mobile phone usage high on the list of offences. The study also found that young drivers were more likely to experience distracted driving.

Meanwhile in 2021, weekday stats revealed that in Great Britain, 1.0% of drivers were observed using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving, with 0.6% observed holding the phone to their ear and 0.4% holding the phone in their hand. This might not sound like a lot, but when you consider the millions of cars on the road each day, the numbers start to become much more significant.

Finally, in January last year, The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) reported figures from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) revealed that in the four years to 2022, 90,057 motorists were caught committing a distracted driving offence once.

So, if you’re tempted to take a chance, don’t do it. The penalties for driving without due care and attention are severe and, in some cases, can lead to heavy fines and prison sentences.

How to avoid distracted driving

Happily, you can beat temptation and save yourself a whole load of trouble by following these tips:

  • Get on over to the Safe Driving for Life Shop and pick up a copy of The Official DVSA Guide to Better Driving. It’s packed full of advice designed to help you avoid distractions, beat stress, and enjoy your driving. Better still, it’s written by Professor Lisa Dorn, an expert in driver behaviour with plenty of practical experience of dealing with anxious drivers
  • Put your mobile phone out of reach and switch it off. It takes you 4.6 seconds – on average – to send a text message and in that time the road scene will have changed massively, and you will have travelled quite a distance. So, let your incoming calls go to voicemail and listen to them when your engine is off. You really don’t need to read those messages or text while you’re driving. If you do need to use your phone, stop in a safe place, switch the engine off, and make your call
  • If you’re listening to loud music, turn it down
  • Don’t be tempted to keep changing the station – looking at displays and pressing buttons will take your attention from what’s going on outside your vehicle
  • If you have passengers in the car and their chatter is distracting, ask them to talk more quietly. Don’t be tempted to turn round to address them though, as diverting your eyes from the road can be dangerous
  • If you have a hands-free system and you do *have* take a call, the person on the other end of the call won't know that your attention is being diverted away from driving unless you tell them
  • If you need to reprogram the Sat-Nav, stop in a safe place, with the engine off, and do it there.

Still driven to distraction?

That concludes our short tour of driver distraction. But if you want to learn more about this very important topic, Better Driving and The Official DVSA Guide to Driving – the essential skills have it covered. You can also check out some of our previous blogs on the subject.

Until next time...

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