How to reduce the risk of driver distraction

  • Drivers face many potential distractions while at the wheel – from mobile phones to road-side advertisements
  • Evidence suggests as many as one in six drivers are engaged in a distracting activity at any one time
  • We discuss the challenge of driver distraction and how organisations can manage the risks

While traffic collisions are often the result of a variety of interconnected factors, the vast majority are due in some part to driver behaviour.

According to the Department for Transport, the two leading contributing factors in collisions are a failure to look properly, and a failure to judge another motorist’s speed. Such collisions commonly occur because a driver is in some way distracted and not giving the road their full attention.

In order for organisations to reduce their motor risk, it is important they understand the common causes of driver distraction, and properly investigate and analyse the root causes of collisions.

Chantelle Davidson, Risk Consultant, Zurich Municipal, says: “This will not only assist organisations in understanding the cost of driver distraction, but also in developing strategies to ensure learnings are taken from the collision. Sharing lessons across the organisation can reduce the probability of a similar situation occurring again.”

Why is driver distraction a significant risk?

Driving requires the full attention of the driver at all times – any visual, auditory or physical activity while driving is a distraction. This could include using mobile phones, talking with passengers, using entertainment or navigation systems or eating and drinking, as well as looking at collision scenes, advertisements, or pedestrians.

According to road safety charity Brake: “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.”

Studies have shown driver distraction is surprisingly common. Out of 11,000 drivers observed on the roads in St Albans, Hertfordshire, one in six were found to be engaged in a distracting activity, such as talking on a phone or to a passenger, or smoking. Separate research has identified that younger drivers are more likely to be engaged in distracting activities. 

Are in-vehicle technological aids a help or a hindrance?

The use of in-vehicle devices such as satellite navigation devices is becoming more common, and it is reported that more than half of drivers now have a sat nav. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says that while sat navs help drivers to plan a route, they do not help them to consider every aspect of the journey, such as when to take a break to manage fatigue. RoSPA has developed a comprehensive factsheet to assist drivers in using in-vehicle satellite navigation devices.

How can organisations manage or mitigate the risks of driver distraction?

Organisations need to ensure they have a robust management programme in place, with appropriate policies in operation. Best practice would be to introduce a ban on the use of mobile phones while driving, including hands-free, and extend such policies to include other in-vehicle distractions such as sat navs.

It is important that organisations engage with line managers so that they understand the impact in-vehicle devices have on drivers.

Having conversations with drivers post-collision and completing root cause analysis will assist in understanding key distractions that drivers are facing, and enable organisations to put appropriate measures in place to reduce such distractions.

Telematics devices, which monitor driver behaviour and use in-vehicle facing cameras, can help organisations to understand if a driver was distracted before a collision occurred, by analysing data such as harsh braking and speed versus posted speed limit. Some telematics devices are able to identify distracted drivers.

Robust procedures and ongoing monitoring are key to improving road safety

It is clear from various road safety studies, as well as the Department for Transport’s annual reports, that driver distraction is a key contributing factor in many collisions.

Drivers need to give their full attention to the road when driving and should not engage in any activity which is going to cause them to be distracted. Organisations should continually reinforce the importance of road safety and have robust policies and procedures in place, with appropriate monitoring processes to ensure drivers are compliant.