Driven to Distraction – Tom Harrington LL B F Inst. MTD (June 2019)

 

Distracted driving is the act of driving while engaged in other activities and is generally split into four types of distraction: Manual, Mental, Cognitive and Auditory. Nearly everyone is guilty of some form of distracted driving at some time or other. Based on international evidence, it is estimated that driver distraction could play a role in 20/30pc of all road collisions in Ireland and GB. This means that driver distraction could be a contributory factor in over 1,400 fatal and injury collisions annually. Distractions occur inside and outside the vehicle. Some are obvious like mobile phone use, daydreaming and eating and drinking, grooming, shaving and applying make-up etc. Also, a question to be asked is whether new technologies are providing more opportunities for distraction than ever before. One of the main offenders is in-vehicle information and navigation systems, the most popular being GPS devices. These systems involve every type of distraction: the physical distraction of pressing keys, visual distraction of reading the display, aural distraction of listening to directions from the device and cognitive distraction of interpreting and processing the devices directions. Then outside the vehicle drivers distractions like looking at people, objects, billboards and the dangerous activity of ‘rubbernecking’. Studies show that people are limited in the amount of information they can process at any one time. To accommodate the multiple demands that occur during driving, people are forced to shift their attention back and forth. Distractions go back to the dawn of the car with the early drivers in their ‘horseless carriages’ failing to keep their eyes on the road ahead. Then the more recent distracting electronic traffic information signs and billboards – like the 1994 billboard advertisment of Eva Herizova and the ‘Wonderbra’. Also, the mini-skirt and hot pants created in the swinging 60s by Mary Quant was certainly a distraction to many hot blooded male drivers. Today, with the plethora of distractions we face on our daily commute, drivers must remain focused and concentrate on the task at hand – safe driving – because a simple lapse in attention or concentration could easily lead to disastrous consequences for the errant driver.

 

Introduction

A common driving problem drawing lawmakers’ attention is driver distraction. Driver distraction has been a problem since the dawn of the car. Ever since the first motorists’ attention was diverted by the funny noise the engine made, or that robin in the tree along the road or the fetching young lady in the passenger seat, we’ve had trouble keeping our eyes and minds on the road. But, with today’s in-car entertainment and navigation systems, plus mobile phones and all our other gadgets, driver distraction is at an all time high even though fines have increased significantly in recent times. Estimates of the role that distraction plays in accidents or injury vary, but data based on a national sample of police-reported crashes in which at least one car was towed, showed that 11.6 per cent of the crashes involved a distracted driver. [1] Studies show that people are limited in the amount of information they can process at any one time. To accommodate the multiple demands that occur during driving, people are forced to shift their attention back and forth. Teens have even less experience behind the wheel so, distractions are more costly. Also, a question asked is whether new technologies are providing more opportunities for distraction than ever before. Nearly everyone is guilty of some form of distracted driving. In fact, distracted drivers are almost everywhere you look – the mobile phone socialite, the in-car iPod D.J., the high-fashion cosmetician and the 3-course meal King or Queen.

 

Main Offender- GPS Devices?

Newer technologies are providing more opportunity for distraction than ever before. One of the main offenders is in-vehicle information and navigation systems, the most popular being GPS devices. These systems involve every type of distraction: the physical distraction of pressing keys, visual distraction of reading the display, aural distraction of listening to directions from the device and cognitive distraction of interpreting and processing the devices directions (NHTSA, 2008).

 

There is also evidence that just having the device in the car increases distraction because drivers simply can’t resist playing with it, even when they don’t need directions: scrolling through the various menus, testing different displays and what not. Even when we should be focused on driving, our curious human nature gets the better of us. But, regardless of their distraction potential, in-vehicle information systems may have a leg up over the more traditional option of paper maps. In a study comparing various types of navigation systems with paper a map, using a paper map leads to worse driving than every combination of visual and aural information. So, you may want to consider permanently stashing the road atlas in that pocket behind the passenger seat. Researchers have divided distraction into four broad categories (Stutts et al., 2005). [2]

 

  • Manual – Taking your hands of the steering wheel
  • Visual – Taking your eyes off the road
  • Cognitive – Taking your mind off the driving task (concentration)
  • Auditory – Listening to information from Sat Nav/passengers

England’s Head of Motorways has questioned the safety of in-car touch screens. Jim O’Sullivan CEO of Highways England is reported to have said: “We don’t like in-car touch screens for safety reasons”. The European Commission estimates between 10 and 30pc of accidents are caused by driver distraction, while car makers have migrated buttons for everything from heating to air conditioning, to radios and sunroofs to touch screens. The problem is recognized as a substantial problem in the USA. To quote Fleet World: [3]

 

“The idiots don’t recognize the distraction element, don’t realize their speed rises and falls during a call, how they often change lane without looking and don’t appreciate the distance they travel while they take their eyes from the road to mobile, be that to see who is calling or to answer a text.”

Top Ten Distractions  [4]

  • Generally distracted or ‘lost in thought’ – daydreaming
  • Mobile phone use – talking, listening, dialing, or texting
  • Outside person, object or event, such as ‘rubbernecking’
  • Other occupants – talking with or looking at other people in car
  • Using or reaching for a device brought into vehicle – such as navigational device, headphones etc.
  • Eating or drinking
  • Adjusting audio or climate controls
  • Using other device/controls integral to the vehicle such as adjusting rear view mirrors, seat or using Sat Nav
  • Moving object in vehicle such as pet or insect

10) Smoking related – includes smoking, vaping, lighting up or putting ash in    ashtray

 

Even though many distractions occur within the vehicle, there are also many outside the vehicle. To name but a few: drivers gazing at people, buildings, other vehicles, scenery and of course ‘rubbernecking’. However, it would be remiss of this writer if mention wasn’t made of a major distraction during the 90s. Czech supermodel and actress, Eva Herizova (nicknamed “The Cigarette” when she was younger) who in 1994 billboard advertisements proclaimed -“Hello Boys” for the new Wonderbra. Reportedly, this advert caused many hot-blooded male motorists to crash whilst splitting their attention to look at this voluptuous and curvaceous model and on the road at the same time. Also, Mary Quant’s (Kings Road Chelsea, in London) pioneering impact on the fashion industry and society during halcyon days the swinging 60s can’t be understated. With creations like the mini-skirt and hot pants, these also created a lethal distraction especially when trying to negotiate the busy streets of the capital and elsewhere.

 

Biggest Distractions in Ireland

Two of the biggest distractions for drivers in Ireland are mobile phones and children. But did you know that child distraction could be more lethal? Visual distractions, like when a frustrated mom uses the rear-view mirror to spy on misbehaving kids, rather than focusing on the road; audible distractions, like the screams of a child while his brother pulls his hair; physical distractions, when the mother reaches back with her left hand to wrangle the offending brother back to his side of the car; and cognitive distraction, like the ensuing conversation about being nice to your brother. As the above example shows, what many people might think of as one distracting situation can actually have many components that increase the potential for driving disaster.

According to researchers at Monash University in Australia, they are twelve times more distracting to a driver than talking on a mobile phone.  The researchers found that the average parent takes their eyes off the road for three minutes and twenty two seconds during a sixteen minute trip. The study analyzed 92 trips for any potentially distracting activities undertaken by the driver. This included all activities that distracted the driver or competed for their attention while driving; including looking away from the forward roadway for more than two seconds while the vehicle was in motion. The study also found that the presence of a front seat passenger did not significantly affect the way in which drivers engaged in potentially distracting child occupant-related activities both in terms of frequency and duration. [5] Based on international evidence, it is estimated that driver distraction could play a role in 20/30pc of all road collisions in this country. This means that driver distraction could be a contributory factor in over 1,400 fatal and injury collisions annually.

 

Study in St. Alban’s

In 2016, out of 1,445 fatal crashes in Britain that resulted in one or more deaths, the police recorded 397 incidences of the contributory factor of “failure to look” and a further 140 incidences of the contributory factors of driver in-vehicle distractions, distractions outside the vehicle and phone use. [6] Out of 11,000 drivers observed by academics conducting a study on road behaviour in St. Alban’s in Hertfordshire , one in six were found to be engaged in a distracting driving activity – such as talking on a phone or to a passenger, or smoking. The study found younger drivers more likely to be engaged in distracting activities. [7] A recent study by Brake Charity and Direct Line revealed a third of drivers admit to eating at the wheel and one in ten suffered near-misses because they were distracted by food while driving. [8] Drivers may choose to divide their attention from the task at hand because they erroneously believe they are in control and have time to react if danger arises. 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. [9] Academics have also pointed to evidence of drivers falling into ‘consequence traps’ and ‘conditioning traps’. A consequence trap is when a driver knows the risk, but succumbs to an overriding temptation of an immediate reward e.g. like reaching for a flask of coffee or changing the music from a track they don’t like.

A conditioning trap is when a driver knows the risk, but has ‘got away with it’ on numerous occasions before, so takes the risk again in the presumption that nothing bad will happen this time either. [10] Increasingly companies with at-work drivers are fitting their vehicles with cameras that watch the driver. In October 2016, lorry driver Thomasz Kroker was jailed for killing four people after ploughing into their car while changing music on his phone. His actions were recorded on camera, providing evidence of his distraction to the police and the courts. [11]

 

Drivers Follow Like Sheep

Since most people aren’t likely to admit to a police officer that they just happened to be reaching for that CD when they veered and many times the officers don’t even ask, these numbers are likely much lower than the actual percentage of accidents caused by distraction. The numbers get even scarier as the accidents get worse. Drivers who were distracted when they crashed are 50 percent more likely to be killed or seriously injured than non- distracted drivers. [12] If you find yourself consistently outraged by the onslaught of angry drivers in your town or city, it may be time to move to a more laid back locale. It turns out that all of these actions can be fostered by the feeling of security generated by the locked doors of your car. Psychologists assert that drivers may develop a sense of anonymity and detachment in the confines of their vehicles. And tinted car windows may be more than a safety hazard. They may even further detach drivers from the situation during an aggressive incident. [13] A common source of driver frustration on the road comes from being stuck behind a slow or inexperienced driver or drivers who follow each other like sheep and often it’s not only someone’s level of aggression, but their age, that contributes to bad driving.

 

The Legal Position

In Ireland, on average, 76 people are caught every day using their mobile phones when driving. In 2015 alone, just over 28,000 people were found to be using, or holding their mobile phone while behind the wheel. Under Irish law, it’s an offence, while driving to hold your mobile phone in your hand or support it with another part of the body, such as between your shoulder and neck. ‘Hold’ is the operative word because it makes no difference whether the person ‘holding’ the phone is talking, texting or browsing. Up to recently, the fines were increased and if caught, you would have to pay €80 and receive three penalty points on your licence.

To specifically address the increasing problem of mobile phone use while driving, Irish law was tightened in 2014. New safety regulations will see drivers who are caught ‘accessing information’ on mobile phones facing increased penalties and a compulsory court appearance. The fine rises to a maximum of €2,000 for a second offence and a third offence within 12 months could bring a possible three month prison sentence on top of the €2,000. Eating or drinking distractions while driving is not illegal. Whereas there is no law that forbids it, you could still receive a fine. Here’s why. As it stands, eating or drinking while driving  is not illegal, but should the food or beverage cause a distraction to the driver, then it can be categorized as ‘careless driving,’ if their behaviour impacts on their ability to control the vehicle. In GB, you can get 6 penalty points and a £200 fine if you use a hand-held phone when driving. Youll also lose your driving licence if you passed your driving test in the last two years. You can also be taken to court where you can be banned from driving or riding and get a maximum fine of £1,000 or £2,500 if you’re driving a lorry or bus. It’s also well to remember that even with a hands-free kit; you can still be prosecuted for careless or dangerous driving, or driving without due care and attention and your licence could be endorsed, or you could even lose it for a period. What’s more, if your mobile phone use while driving causes a collision or road traffic accident, other drivers affected can bring a personal injury compensation claim against you. This can be a potentially lengthy and costly legal procedure and one that is certain to adversely affect your motor insurance premiums in the future. [14]

 

Texting & Walking

Texting while walking may soon become illegal. Last year, the Belgian city of Antwerp got a ‘text walking’ lane. Shortly after this a stretch of pavement in Washington DC was given a phone lane. Now, texting while walking could be a criminal offence in the US state of New Jersey. A bill has been introduced that would see offenders hit with a fine of $50 or up to 15 days in prison. This follows from a US National Safety Council report stating that there have been 11,101 documented injuries between 2000 and 2011 as a result of walkers using a mobile phone. Ireland and Great Britain might be safe for now but we still have the urge to push all those zombie-like shuffling phone checks into the gutter as we pass by. [15]

 

Conclusion

Ten per cent of fatal crashes and 16pc of all police-reported motor vehicle crashes in 2003 were reported as distracted-affected crashes.

Distracted driving is not new phenomenon but a practice that is recognized and understood by many. One of the most common causes of distracted driving is mobile phone use – talking and texting. Talking or texting on a mobile phone while driving is by far the most common for distracted driving accidents. In fact the National Safety Council estimates that 26pc of all car crashes involve the use of mobile phones. Distractions impede driver ability to split hazards and react in time. It’s about overloading a driver with too much to do and breakdowns in their attention.[16] Distractions vary on effects on drivers, depending on timing, intensity, duration, frequency resumeability (the extent to which the driving task can be halted and resumed efficiently) and the ‘hang-over effect’ (the mental distraction that remains once a task is completed). [17] Any road user can become distracted, including vulnerable road users e.g. pedestrians and cyclists. This fact emphasizes of drivers watching out for people on foot and cyclists doing unpredictable and dangerous things. Finally, it’s unsafe to drive and be distracted because you can’t do both as you’re splitting your concentration. So, to avoid becoming another KSI driver, PLS DNT TXT and DRV.

 

 

 

[1] Stutts, J. et al, (2005). Guidance for implementation of the AASHTO strategic Highway Plan: A guide for reducing crashes involving drowsy and distracted drivers. NCHRP. Rep. No. 500-14. Washington, D.C. Transportation Research Board.

[2] Examining driver’s perception of internal and external distraction risk and predictions of these perceptions. Stutt et al 2005. https://www.researchgate.net

[3] (April 2016). England Highways – claims for costs following collisions, the consideration and concerns. highwaysengland.co.uk

[4] Jack Benton 8 April 2013. Safety News America. https://ehssafetynewsamerica.com

[5] Monash University – Children More Distracting Than Mobile Phones. https://www.monash.edu

[6] Reported Road Casualties GB. 2016 DfT 2017. Table RAS50001

[7] Sullman, M. A roadside study of observable driver distractions. Cranfield University, 2014.

[8] Eating at the wheel. Brake & Direct Line Survey. 2016. www.brake.org.uk

[9] Young. K. et al. Driver Distraction, Theory, Effects and Mitigation.20018.

[10] Lee, J. Dynamics of Driver Distraction: The Process of Engaging and Disengaging, 2014.

[11] Brake – The Road Safety Charity – Driver Distractions. www.brake.org.uk

[12]National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) (2008).

[13] Whitlock, F.A. et al (1971) Death on the road. London: Tavistock.

[14] McCarthy & Co. Solicitors. (5 April 2018). Legal GuidesUsing a mobile phone while driving in Ireland. www.lawplainand simple.com

[15] The Irish Times. Web Log: Texting while walking may soon be illegal. https://irishtimes.com

[16] Lee, J. Dynamics of Driver distraction: The Process of Engaging and Disengaging. 2014.

[17] Kinnear, N. et al, The Prevalence of Distracted Walking and its Effect on Driver Behaviour. 2016.

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