Distracted driving and riding

Driving or riding involves more than just physically controlling a vehicle. It involves complex skills and multiple mental processes including memory to reach a destination), as well as perceptual skills, social understanding and cognitive skills.

Distractions occur when attention is removed from the skills needed for safe driving or riding.. Examples of distractions include: using mobile phones, interacting with the systems in a ‘connected car’, eating, drinking, smoking, reading, writing, interacting with passengers, checking maps, looking at roadside objects, pets, signs and advertising.

Data from the Department for Transport showed that in 2014 driver and rider error or reaction times were cited as contributory factors in 74% of accidents, involving more than 117,000 casualties (20,830 of those  in the London area). Distraction and impairment specifically were cited as  factors in 21,916 road accidents during 2014.


Follow our @IAMRoadSmart twitter account and search the hashtag #distractions for more stats, advice and information.

The four types of distraction

The manner in which distractions can mentally affect a driver or rider can be described in 4 non-mutually exclusive explanations:

Cognitive or mental distraction: Occurs when a driver or rider’s mind is engaged with other tasks not necessary for safe driving or riding and tasks that actually compete for mental or cognitive resources needed for driving or riding.

Visual distraction: Occurs when a driver or rider looks away from the road to engage in activity either inside (e.g. radio, phone, sat-nav) or outside (e.g. signs, advertisements) of the vehicle.

Auditory distraction: Occurs when a driver is subjected to noise that diverts attention from activities necessary for safe driving, such as paying attention to a phone conversation, children crying or seat belt warnings.  Auditory distraction is likely to be combined with other distractions such as looking to establish the source.

Manual distraction: Occurs when the driver takes their hands (either one or both) off the vehicle controls to attend to an activity that is not required for safe driving. The most common examples are eating, drinking and using a mobile phone.

The Connected Car

The ‘connected car’ offers many opportunities to improve road safety, but the range of features and gadgets it provides – such as Heads Up Displays (HUDs), speech-to-text, in-car voice-control functionality (allowing drivers to write text messages and emails whilst driving) – inevitably pose distractions too. According to a study by the American Automobile Association (AAA): "Trying to make driving safer by developing hands-free communication systems could have the unintended consequence of overloading the motorist concentration capacity and increase crash-risk, the technology can create a "false sense of security."

Other studies have shown the need to improve device design and develop the HMI (Human Machine Interface) with limiting driver distraction in mind.

Mobile Phone Use When Driving

Using a mobile phone whilst driving can involve tasks such as locating the phone, answering a call, finding a contact, dialling a number, reading or writing a text, accessing the internet, reading and navigating a map and changing music. Each of these sub-tasks of mobile phone use will require physical, auditory, visual and cognitive resources, which will impact on driving behaviour and safety to varying degrees, read more on mobile phone driving distractions.

IAM RoadSmart’s ‘The battle for attention’ report, produced in collaboration with Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) which focuses on the dangers involved when drivers try to multi-task, states that texting engages three of the five key areas of distraction to a ‘high’ level cognitive, visual and manual. Whilst a mobile phone conversation will engage three of five areas of distraction to a ‘high’ level cognitive, audible and exposure time.

Mobile Phone

Read more about the type of distraction mobile phone use whilst driving can cause

Driving with Children

An IAM RoadSmart survey of 1,070 Mumsnet and Gransnet members found that while 95% of both sets of members were confident drivers, they would like to improve their skills when driving with children and grandchildren in the car.

Keeping children entertained is an important part of having a safer, less distracted journey. Ensure they are secure in a properly fitted seat or restraint and bring your child’s favourite toys, games or books to keep them entertained, read more on how to keep young children safe when driving.

Driving with children distraction video

Driving with Pets

Pets can pose some challenges when driving, so do not keep them in the front seat or on your lap. Driving with an unsecured pet in the front seat could distract you at just the wrong moment and you never know when your pet might react to something they think is interesting outside the car. This is important for their safety too. Ideally dogs should be behind a guard or correctly strapped in in the back seat. Cats or smaller creatures should be in an appropriately secured carrier. And never let your pet stick his or her head out of the window.

Driving with pets distraction video

Commercial Drivers

Professional drivers are often required to engage with more in-vehicle equipment than private drivers. They tend to spend long periods of time in their vehicles and can be under time pressure. Employers are increasingly recognising that they have a duty of care towards their employees and the public, and that it makes business as well as safety sense to have strict no-distraction policies for technologies such as mobile phones when driving. Research has highlighted that van drivers are almost twice as likely as car drivers to use hand-held mobile phones – 2.7% compared to 1.4% of car drivers, according to figures from the Department for Transport.

Multi-tasking Myth

The report produced by IAM RoadSmart and the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), concludes that multi-tasking whilst driving is a myth and the most dangerous of those driving multi-tasks is texting and talking on a mobile phone.

The impact of distraction on driving safety depends on its intensity, including the duration of the distraction and how frequently it happens (the length of time the driver is exposed to the additional risk). For example, tuning the radio may cause short visual, auditory and manual distraction; whereas talking using a hands-free phone device is capable of causing cognitive and auditory distraction.

The Battle for Attention

Read a review of recent research on driver distraction