The Dangers of Distracted Driving

What is distracted driving and how dangerous is it?

Driver distraction is defined as a diversion of attention away from activities critical for safe driving toward a competing activity (Lee, et al 2009). Distraction and inattention are a significant cause of road traffic incidents and fatalities. It has been estimated that up to 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve inattention as a contributing factor, and that distraction is a factor in about a quarter of these (100 car study, Virginia Tech University Transportation Institute). Approximately one third of these crashes came about as a result of drivers being distracted by events/object outside the vehicle and about one fifth in interaction with equipment inside the vehicle.

What are the main culprits of distracted driving?

There has been a rapid proliferation of technology being brought into the car including things like ipods, MP3s and smart phone alongside sophisticated in-vehicle systems. The driver can now be driven to distraction by technology. The extent to which a driver is distracted from driving depends on the timing of the task being performed and the driver’s ability to avoid overlapping activities that demand attention. Short tasks that require an easy response such as pressing a button are not cognitively demanding, but long tasks that require a response to a menu such (as in the case of some types of sat navs or mobile phones) are very demanding to execute and should not be attempted on the move.

According to Regan et al (2009) the categories of driver distraction elements are:-

  1. Things brought into the vehicle (e.g. document, food, drinks, grooming accessories, technology device, writing implements)
  2. Vehicle systems (i.e. entertainment, mechanical problems and vehicle controls/devices)
  3. Vehicle occupants (adult front, back and child front and back)
  4. Moving object in the vehicle (animal, insect etc.)
  5. External object or event (animal, architecture, advertising billboards)
  6. Internalized activity (at work driving,lost in thought, medical impairment, etc.)

Cranfield University Research

In a Cranfield University study (Sullman, 2012) data were collected from observing drivers via the roadside noting every vehicle that drove past and whether drivers were engaged in a secondary activity. Twenty sessions lasting for 60 minutes led to over 12,000 driver observations. The study found that 5.5 per cent of those observed were undertaking a secondary activity whilst driving with the most frequently observed being using a mobile phone (2.6 per cent of the cases) followed by talking (2.2 per cent) and (keying numbers or texting on mobile phones (0.4 per cent). Smoking (0.9 per cent) eating (0.8 per cent) and drinking (0.6 per cent) were also observed. This study suggests that there is a high prevalence of distracting secondary activities being performed whilst driving and highlights the need for driver education to mitigate the risk.

Mitigating the risk of driving distracted

DriverMetrics® offers an elearning module called ‘Distraction’ with learning outcomes that focus on improving understanding about the limits of the brain and attentional processes. The module teaches drivers about the various forms of distraction and that how driving performance is seriously impaired when the focus switches to a secondary task. The contribution of distraction as a factor in crashes is likely to increase as more distractions, inside and outside the vehicle, compete for driver attention. Fleet drivers are more likely to use their car as a mobile office and need to be aware of the risk of driving distracted.


Lee, J. D., Young, K. L., & Regan, M. A. (2009). Defining driver distraction. In M. Regan, J. Lee & K. Young (Eds.), Driver distraction: Theory, effects, and mitigation (pp. 31-40). Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Stutts, J.C., et al. (2005). Drivers’ Exposure to Distractions in their Natural Driving Environment, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 37, 1093-1101.

Sullman, M. (2012). An observational study of driving distraction in England. Transportation Research Part F, 15,272-278.