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Written on 11th March 2024 by Kim Milan

A report by the European Road Safety Observatory has highlighted the safety risk to road users from driver and rider distraction. Their Thematic Report: Driver Distraction explores the many ways in which drivers can become distracted from the all-important task of driving safely to avoid injury to themselves, their passengers and other road users from road traffic accident (RTA) crashes and collisions.

Inconsistent research findings, evolving technologies, and gaps in legislation and law enforcement have resulted in driver distraction being misunderstood or under-recognised as a cause of danger and road casualties, particularly amongst younger drivers. In-car technologies, such as automation and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) may be helpful but also provide a false sense of security or additional distraction, with road safety charity, Brake, recently reporting that 41% drivers in a recent survey admitted to turning their vehicle’s safety features off because they found them annoying.

Law enforcement, technology and safer roads have important roles to play in improving road safety and reducing injury, but drivers’ care and compliance also depend on us all becoming more aware of the life-changing injury that drivers can suffer or cause to their passengers and other people on the roads from distractions and lapses in concentration.

What is driver distraction?

Safe driving depends on drivers constantly monitoring the traffic, road conditions and surroundings, and being alert enough to react to unexpected events. The European Road Safety Observatory’s report defines driver distraction as ‘the diversion of attention away from activities critical for safe driving toward a competing activity, which may result in insufficient or no attention to activities critical for safe driving.’

Distraction can be visual (such as looking at something outside the car), auditory (e.g. listening to music), physical or manual (eating food, or holding or dialling a mobile phone), or cognitive (talking to a passenger or on the phone), or a combination of these.  Research in the USA suggests that car drivers spend around 50% of their driving time involved in distracting activities.

The risks associated with driver distraction depend on the type of distraction, with anything that takes the driver’s gaze away from the road being more risky than purely cognitive distractions. Factors such as age and driving experience, the road conditions and the type of road user also affect the level of risk and danger from distracted driving or riding. Distracted drivers are more likely to swerve, miss important cues from the traffic environment and take longer to react to situations and events.

Driver distraction from mobile phones

The report highlighted that the mobile phone is one of the most common sources of driver distraction, particularly among younger drivers. In research across 20 European countries, drivers admitted that whilst driving they used hands-free devices (48%), hand-held mobile phones (29%), and checked text messages and social media (24%).

In the UK, it is against the law to use a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving or riding a motor vehicle on the road. Drivers who are caught using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving will receive a fixed penalty notice with points on their driving licence and a fine, and may be disqualified from driving or riding. It is illegal to hold and use a phone, satellite navigation (satnav), tablet, or any device that can send or receive data, while driving or riding a motorcycle. This means that drivers must not hold any device in their hand, whether online or offline, whilst driving. So, no texting, calling, browsing, photographing or videoing, even whilst stopped at traffic lights or in a traffic jam, even if the car automatically turns off the engine when it stops moving, and that also applies to a passenger who is supervising a learner driver.

Exceptions to this rule include: when the car is parked safely; if the driver is making a 999/112 emergency call but is unable to stop; if the car is stationary whilst making a contactless payment, such as at a drive-through restaurant; or if the device is being used to park the vehicle remotely.

Does a hands-free mobile phone count as driver distraction?

It is currently not illegal to use hands-free devices whilst driving, such as Bluetooth headsets, voice command, via a dashboard holder or windscreen mount, or built-in satnav. This is on condition that the device does not block the driver’s view of the traffic and the road and that the driver remains in full control of their vehicle at all times. The police can still stop and prosecute distracted drivers under the criminal law, even if their distraction was caused by hands-free use of a mobile phone. Likewise, in civil law, any form of distracted driving which causes injury to a passenger, pedestrian or other road user can be negligent driving for the purposes of compensating the injured victim in an RTA injury claim.

Research shows that drivers using mobile phones of any kind are four times more likely to be involved in a collision. They are less likely to notice hazards, even when they appear directly ahead of them, and take longer to react to those hazards when they see them. Visual-manual tasks, which require the driver to look away from the road, more than double (2.5 times) the driver’s crash risk, with a 12-fold increase in crash risk for dialling, and a 6-fold increase for texting. Research evidence and opinions remain divided about the safety of hands-free mobile phone use whilst driving, which involves less physical distraction than hand-held calling but can still cause significantly delayed reactions and reduced awareness of traffic signs, other vehicles, and the driver’s own vehicle’s speed.

Responding to research by the Open University involving the police and the perception of safer hands-free mobile phone use among drivers, Ruth Purdie OBE, Chief Executive of The Road Safety Trust has been quoted as saying: “Evidence shows that hands-free is as dangerous as physically using a mobile phone. The cognitive distraction can increase crash risk, reduce hazard detection, and lead to poor situational awareness. Therefore, it is vital… that police officers are not recommending hands-free as a safe alternative to illegally using a hand-held device.”

Driver distraction is about more than mobile phones

The European Road Safety Observatory’s report on distracted driving highlights a number of other potentially dangerous causes of distraction for drivers.  These include talking to passengers which, particularly for younger drivers (aged 16-29),  is associated with slower reaction times and more severe injuries from RTA collisions. Interacting with vehicle ‘infotainment’ systems more than doubles (x 2.5) the collision risk. Eating and drinking whilst driving is associated with greater deviations in lane position, longer reaction times and increased crash risk. Listening to music can have positive and negative effects. Strong emotions, such as anger, sadness, crying, and stress increase the driver’s crash risk by 9.8 times.

External distractions, such as roadside advertising billboards reduce driving safety from looking away from the road, slower reactions to road signs or sudden braking by the car in front, leaving less space between the car in front, and failing to stay in lane. Research has shown that drivers who look at an external object for a prolonged period of time are 7 times more likely to be involved in a crash.  

What can be done to reduce driver distraction?  

The European Road Safety Observatory found that measures focussed on changing the behaviour of drivers and riders could include better enforcement of existing legal bans on the use of handheld phones and devices. Four-fifths (80%) of European survey respondents agreed that traffic rules relating to phone use while driving are not sufficiently monitored.  

Rumble strips, which use sound and vibration to warn the driver when their car is running off the road, are known to reduce the number of road crashes caused by distraction by up to 25%, and to limit their severity.

The report also recommends that highly distracting advertising billboards should not be placed at the side of the road, to avoid distracting drivers. 

Measures within the vehicle include Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), which detect and alert drivers and even intervene to correct potential dangers, such as lane departure or forward collision warnings, or autonomous emergency braking. ADAS can help reduce the number of distraction-related crashes, but the report points out that distraction monitoring systems are continuously evolving and need further investigation to assess their impact. They also need improvement in relation to their accuracy. They warn that ADAS systems can also be distracting and their warnings  ignored if they constantly overload the driver with warnings and alerts. ADAS and automated driving systems may also provide a false sense of protection to drivers, increasing the likelihood of them performing distracting tasks while driving.

The European Road Safety Observatory’s Thematic Report: Driver Distraction recommended regular targeted public campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of distraction in traffic. Where distraction relates to illegal activities, such as holding a mobile phone when driving, the report recommended that the public campaigns should be linked to increased enforcement. Awareness campaigns should target young drivers, and be included in driver education as well as in ongoing training for professional drivers. Drivers should also be made aware that built-in information and entertainment systems can be a source of distraction. Sadly, the report also pointed out that the impact of awareness raising can be limited, as research shows that many drivers who use their mobile phones while driving are already aware of the risks.

If you have been seriously injured in an accident that was someone else’s fault, and you would like to find out more about funded rehabilitation or making a claim, you can talk to one of our experienced solicitors, free and confidentially, by contacting us here.