Road safety thematic report – Distraction

Stelling, A.; Boets, S.

Driver distraction is a significant risk factor in traffic. Distraction occurs when attention is diverted away from activities needed for safe driving towards a competing activity. Distraction can be visual, auditory, physical and/or cognitive in nature. Common sources are: interaction with passengers, mobile phone/device use, eating, or adjusting in-vehicle systems. Research in the US indicates that car drivers are involved in distracting activities for about half of driving time. The mobile phone is one of the most common sources of driver distraction. The self-declared prevalence of mobile phone use while driving a car in 20 European countries is 48% for the use of hands-free devices, 29% for handheld mobile phone conversations, and 24% for text reading/checking social media. While the latter two activities are illegal, hands-free phoning is generally not. Recent observations of drivers in 15 European countries found that the percentage of drivers using a handheld mobile device varied among countries and ranged from 1.7% to 9.5%. The use of mobile phones while driving is relatively high among younger drivers and relatively low among elderly drivers.

Distraction has negative effects on driving performance. Distracted drivers generally tend to swerve more, have longer reaction times, and more often miss information from the traffic environment. The risks associated with driver distraction depend on the type of distracting activity. Research indicates that activities during which drivers avert their gaze from the road – such as visual-manual tasks including dialling or texting - are riskier than primarily cognitive activities – such as having a phone conversation.
Road-user focused countermeasures include the enforcement of the legal bans on the use of handheld phones (and electronic devices), e.g., with smart cameras, and raising awareness of the risks of distraction in public campaigns and through driver education during licensing.

New vehicle technologies to combat distracted driving are promising but the overall effects are still unknown. Advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) such as forward collision warning and lane departure warning aim to prevent the consequences of distracted driving. The new EU Regulation makes an advanced driver distraction warning system mandatory for all new vehicles.

In terms of infrastructure, rumble strips can reduce the number of crashes caused by distraction or limit their severity. The placement of potentially highly distracting advertising panels along the side of the road should be avoided.

European Road Safety Observatory, European Commission, Brussels

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