In his monthly column, Simon Turner discusses the pressing issue of driver distraction, emphasising the dangers of multitasking while driving and the need for strict policies and technology to manage this risk effectively.
Driver distraction is one the fatal five – the most common contributory factors to fatal road collisions – and it can be one of the hardest work-related road risks to manage. Not only is it rarely witnessed, but vehicles are increasingly filled with phones, infotainment systems and other technology.
What is a distraction?
Distraction is anything which takes the driver’s focus or hands away from controlling the vehicle and/or paying attention to the road. Most organisations and drivers still focus on the manual distraction of holding a mobile phone because this is specifically illegal. However, visual, auditory and cognitive distractions are just as deadly, and just as illegal. This kind of distraction usually shows up in police reports as ‘failure to look’, ‘careless driving’ or ‘dangerous driving’. The law expects drivers to be focused on driving at all times.
Mobile phones and in-vehicle systems are the most obvious form of distraction but not the only causes. Eating, drinking, smoking, grooming, paperwork and many other things can take a driver’s attention away from the road.
Solera’s SmartDrive vehicle camera systems analysed 330m pieces of fleet footage comparing HGV drivers who had collisions and those who did not. It found that collision drivers were consistently more distracted. Furthermore, The 100-Car Naturalistic Study captured two million miles of driving across one year – distraction contributed to 78% of crashes and 65% of near misses.
Government figures still show concerning levels of handheld phone use; commercial surveys have shown up to 50% of drivers use their phones to talk, text, take photos, or even watch TV while driving.
We can’t multitask
The truth is the human brain is not well equipped for multitasking. Professor Gemma Briggs explains: ‘human attention is limited, so when we switch back and forth between tasks we can over-stretch attentional capacity. Phone-using drivers often exceed their capacity, resulting in them looking at the road ahead but not necessarily seeing what is there. This ‘inattentional blindness’ is caused by any type of phone use, including hands free, and can obviously lead to some very serious consequences. Drivers on the phone are four times more likely to crash than undistracted drivers, will fail to notice some hazards and will take significantly longer to react to any hazards they do notice.’ To further demonstrate the effects of cognitive distraction, a recent study showed that a driver remains distracted for up to 27 seconds after giving a voice command. At 30mph a car has travelled 364m in 27 seconds. Even ‘ignored’ phone notifications affect our concentration.
This is further complicated by increasing levels of ‘maladaptive mobile phone use’ or phone addiction, meaning drivers are unwilling to turn off their phones.
Professor Gemma Briggs presented a recent Driving for Better Business lecture on managing distracted driving and was then joined by senior management from Balfour Beatty to discuss how they deal with this key safety issue. Watch the lecture and discussion here.
A pattern of collisions, near misses, incidental damage, poor anticipation, and harsh braking can all be indicators of frequent driver distraction.
H&S policies must include:
– Not using a mobile phone (handheld or handsfree) or other device when driving
– Pulling over safely before taking any work call or communication
– Programming/checking any technology – such as PDA or sat nav – before pulling onto the road.
– Not calling or contacting drivers while on the road
– Drivers must solely focus on driving while behind the wheel
The role of technology
Telematics can capture indicators and inward-facing cameras can provide evidence of driver distraction. AI-enhanced cameras can send real-time alerts to drivers and managers.
Some technologies block mobile phone signals, and apps can put phones in silent ‘driving’ mode. However, many drivers will carry personal phones.
Ultimately only a zero-tolerance policy, and close monitoring of drivers, preferably with the use of intelligent cameras, can really eliminate this problem. (However, such cameras usually monitor eye gaze and therefore may not detect handsfree calls.) Education and training can help, but some drivers will nonetheless believe they can multitask without risk or feel their need is urgent enough to disobey the rules.
The disruption of driver disqualification
If your drivers aren’t able to resist using a handheld mobile phone while driving then they need to watch out for the police who have been trialling mobile enforcement vans across the country that are equipped with high-resolution cameras and AI to determine whether the driver is using their phone. If they are, the AI triggers a photograph of the offending driver using their phone. This is then manually cross-checked with a real officer and a fine and six penalty points dished out to the driver. Your driver only needs 12 points to have their licence suspended leaving their employer with the headache of minimising service disruption and getting a replacement driver.
Driving for Better Business is a free programme to help you reduce work-related road risk, control the associated costs and improve compliance with current legislation and guidance.
The website also contains a number of free drug-driving resources to help you raise awareness and communicate with your drivers.