Distracted driving is where you don’t focus solely on your actions as a driver, because you’re physically or mentally preoccupied with something else. Even small things can cause distraction—and we often don’t realise the full impact they have on our concentration. Drifting attentiveness can lead to drifting lanes, failing to spot hazards and slower reflexes. It’s a crucial issue to address in order to stay safe on the roads.
Both new and experienced drivers are at risk from the dangers of losing focus. But once you’re aware of the types of things that can cause distracted driving, you’ll be in a much better position to reduce their effect.
Why is distracted driving a problem?
Research shows that we can’t effectively multitask on more than one cognitively demanding task at the same time. In terms of driving, the more complex the manoeuvre, the greater a distraction is likely to affect you. Driving straight along a clear road may not present much of a challenge, but when you add things like junctions and other traffic, you need much more brain power.
When your focus is compromised, your reactions will be delayed—and so you endanger yourself, your passengers and other road users. Distractions contribute to thousands of accidents and near misses on British roads every single year. Most of these instances are down to distractions that are within the vehicle itself. If you’re found to be driving carelessly, or without due care and attention, you can get a fine and 3 points on your licence, or you may be asked to attend an educational course. Things get even worse if you’re deemed dangerous, meaning you fall “far below the standards expected of a careful and competent driver”.
What are the different types of driving distractions?
In order to get a handle on your concentration, you need to know what sort of things threaten it. There are 4 categories of distractions that are likely to affect your driving.
Looking at anything other than the road, other road users, upcoming signs, road markings and potential hazards… basically anything that does not directly affect your driving is a visual distraction. A bird of prey; a funny bumper sticker; an accident on the opposite carriageway: any of these things can take your eyes off the roads and cause you to make a driving mishap. Even actions that are generally part of being a good driver, like looking in your rearview mirror, can turn into a visual distraction if you spend too long concentrating on them.
Any auditory stimulation can act as a distraction when you’re driving. It’s one thing having the radio on in the background, but if you’re so invested in the discussion that you tune out of the task at hand, it’s time to turn it off.
Manual distractions involve you taking one or both hands off the wheel to do something else. This is dangerous, even for a second, because you’ll waste valuable time getting them back in position if you need to steer. And, let’s face it, steering is pretty key.
Perhaps the distraction trap we’re most prone to falling into is thinking about other things when we’re driving. We often talk about driving becoming second nature—and that’s great, in the sense that our muscle memory allows us to perform skills with ease. But when our brains begin to focus on other things, that’s when our driving can suffer.
Many distractions cross over into more than one category. For instance, they often cause you to not only look away from the road ahead, but think about something other than driving as well.
What are some of the top distractions while driving?
Some of the most common driving distractions are things that are specifically legislated against. Others are actions that are technically allowed, but become illegal if they cause you to drive carelessly.
Using a phone
Probably the most widely recognised risk of distracted driving is that of using a phone. Calling or texting on a handheld device while driving is banned in the UK, and legislators are working to close loopholes in the law. Even talking on the phone hands-free is a serious distraction, because the person you’re talking to isn’t aware of your surroundings. That means they won’t automatically go quiet when you’re facing a potential hazard, as many passengers do.
✈ Turn your phone onto airplane mode. If you’re tempted to check for messages, or a banner alert is too alluring, get rid of the distraction completely by turning off your notifications.
Eating and drinking
There’s no explicit rule about eating or drinking in the car. Indeed, if you have a condition like diabetes, or are embarking on a long drive, you should always keep snacks handy. You do need to exercise your judgement wisely, however. Eating can cause you to take your hands, eyes and mind off your driving—and slow your reactions by as much as 44%.
🍔 It’s usually advisable to stop before tucking in to a full-blown meal. If you need to snack on the move, choose food that isn’t likely to get too messy. Invest in a drinks bottle that doesn’t require you to unscrew its lid to make the occasional sip so much safer.
At the moment, UK law allows you to smoke as you drive, except if there are children under 18 in the car. However, lighting a cigarette is a manual distraction, as is smoking itself: it occupies one hand.
🚫 If you can’t make it through a journey without smoking, pull over in a safe place before you light up.
Following a sat nav
Finding your way to an unfamiliar location has never been easier. Your sat nav, be that a dedicated device or a GPS map on your phone, can help you concentrate on driving rather than worrying about getting lost. But sat navs are only safe if you use them correctly. Otherwise, there’s a risk that they could become a danger, one that might even span every category of the distraction spectrum:
- Taking your hands off the wheel to tap the screen: a manual distraction.
- Thinking about how to input the address, or change the view, or put the sound on: a cognitive distraction.
- Looking at the map for too long: a visual distraction.
- Jumping if it’s too loud, or straining to hear it if it’s too quiet: an auditory distraction.
🗺 Always make sure you’ve set up your map before you start to drive, even if you know you’ll only need directing for part of the journey. If you need to make changes, find a safe place to stop before you adjust it. Alternatively, ask your passenger seat companion to do it for you.
If you’re driving with passengers or have children in the car, make sure they understand (as much as possible) that if they distract you, it compromises your concentration. That isn’t to say you can’t chat to your passengers (it’s far safer to talk to them than to talk to anyone on the phone) but breaking up fights in the back seat is a sure fire way to get into trouble.
⛶ Establish boundaries with your passengers, so that they know you won’t tolerate their distractions. Ask them to stay quiet if you’re navigating a tricky junction, and explain how their actions affect your ability to drive safely.
Fluffy (and not so fluffy) companions are great, but pets can be a major distraction when you’re behind the wheel. You don’t want your dog to clamber onto your lap and start drooling as you drive! Remember, it’s as much about keeping them safe as it is about you.
🐕 Make sure that your pet is securely restrained, which might include using a cage or fastening a special harness to a seatbelt. Check out our other tips for taking your pets on a drive—whether you’re off on holiday, or going to the vets.
Adjusting the radio
Music and radio can help make your journey more enjoyable—but you need to be sure you’re mentally focussing on the road, rather than what’s floating over the airwaves. Adjusting the volume or changing the channel can cause you to take your eyes off the road. Many cars now have these controls on the steering wheel to avoid drivers having to reach over to press them.
🔊 Our advice? Get to know how your radio works. Have a play with the controls when you’re stationary, and this’ll help minimise the amount it distracts you when you’re driving. If you’re connecting your own music to the vehicle’s Bluetooth, have a playlist ready, so that you’re not tempted to search for different tracks as you drive.
Doing your hair or applying make up
Your mirrors serve a valuable purpose, but checking your appearance when you’re in charge of the car isn’t it. Lots of people use time stopped at traffic lights to do their hair or make up, but it isn’t safe then, and it’s even worse on the move.
💄 Give yourself a bit of extra time to get ready—before starting your journey. That way, neither your hands nor your brain will be preoccupied with how you look.
Drifting off mentally is a really common cause of distracted driving. Whether you’re worrying about work, or daydreaming about your next holiday, the most dangerous part of your mind wandering is that you often don’t even realise it’s happening.
🤔 You can’t always stop yourself thinking of other things. But keeping your eyes on the move and proactively looking out for potential hazards ahead will help focus your attention back on the roads. If you often find yourself switching off on a regular journey, like a commute, change up your route every so often to keep things fresh.
How can you prevent distraction while behind the wheel?
We’ve already covered several specific steps you can take to reduce driving distractions. Here are a few more tips to help you keep your attention firmly on the roads.
① Practice defensive driving and learn to anticipate hazards well in advance.
② Prepare before you drive, whether that’s getting to know your vehicle, putting your water bottle in a convenient place, or making sure your phone’s connected to the Bluetooth.
③ Get used to pulling over in a safe spot if you need to change your sat nav, message somebody or have a snack.
④ Only drive when you’re well rested and mentally prepared for the task ahead.
How modern technology can help
As technology progresses, so too do the ways in which it can be used to minimise distracted driving. Many modern cars now include a heads-up display: your speedometer and other important information is beamed onto your windscreen. The idea is that instead of needing to move your head, you just need to adjust your focus. Likewise, phones that can be connected to a car’s Bluetooth and voice-controlled allow many drivers to call people hands-free. However, studies show that talking to anyone on the phone, even hands-free, can still increase your chances of causing an accident.
In fact, lots of technology can either help or hinder our ability to stay alert, depending on how we use it. Sense-check your actions, and if you find that something disrupts your concentration, make every effort to avoid putting yourself in that situation.