Distracted and inattentive driving

Drivers need to stay alert for the entire time they are behind the wheel. This means scanning the road environment, processing information, and making decisions about the primary task of driving. However, keeping drivers’ minds on the job is easier said than done.

All drivers engage in some kind of distracting activity while they are driving. Calming a distressed child in the back seat, putting in a CD or changing stereo settings, eating on the run or calling the boss on the mobile phone are all activities that interfere with safe driving.

Distraction occurs when a driver, either willingly or unwillingly, engages in a secondary activity that interferes with performance of their primary task - driving the vehicle (Regan 2005). Drivers can be distracted in many ways by things inside or outside of the vehicle.

Types of distraction:

Generally, driver distraction falls into three categories, with some behaviours being a combination of these:
  • Visual – taking your eyes off the road (e.g., looking at a mobile phone to read a text message);
  • Physical – taking your hands off the steering wheel (e.g., to adjust stereo controls/change CD); and
  • Cognitive – taking your mind off (or attention away from) the driving task (e.g., talking to passengers). Cognitive distraction usually accompanies physical and visual distractions.

Advice for motorists:

While all drivers are susceptible to being distracted, it is possible to train ourselves to choose more appropriate times to deal with certain things that can otherwise be potential distractions while driving.

The ‘Not Now’ approach to managing and reducing the occurrence and impact of driver distractions relies on the driver consciously deciding that the driving task is their primary priority.

For ‘Not Now’ to be effective, the driver:
  • Identifies the potential distraction, e.g., a ringing phone;
  • Says ‘Not Now’; and
  • Chooses a more appropriate time to deal with the distraction e.g., when they have reached their destination, or by parking the vehicle in a safe place.
Passengers can help the driver to pay attention to the driving task by:
  • Avoiding stressful or emotional conversations while driving;
  • Assisting in identifying potential hazards; and
  • Respecting the driver’s need to concentrate – especially if they say ‘Not Now’.

Tips to avoid driver distraction

Driver distraction is one of the biggest issues on Queensland roads today. The latest research shows that 88 percent of RACQ's 1.2 million members believe it's a bigger problem now than it was five years ago. In this episode of RACQ TV, we take a closer look at what driver distraction is by identifying the issue in its many different forms and give you tips on how to avoid it.

Every distraction leads to delays in driver reactions, increases the likelihood of missing potential hazards and compromises safety.

RACQ is pleased that driver inattention/distraction has been identified as part of the ‘Fatal Five’ in Queensland, and has long held the view that it should be a priority road user behaviour issue.

In 2008 there were 30 fatalities as a result of crashes involving drivers or riders attributed with undue care and attention only in Queensland, which represented 9.1% of the Queensland road toll (Data Analysis Unit 2009). This was 14 fatalities (or 31.8%) fewer than the previous year and five fatalities (or 13.3%) greater than the previous five-year average (Data Analysis Unit 2009).

There is evidence to suggest that young novice drivers and older drivers (over 55 years old) are more vulnerable to the effects of distraction than other drivers (Regan 2005). These groups should therefore be especially targeted for education and enforcement activities related to driver distraction.

As more technologically advanced communication and information systems are being introduced to our vehicles and roads, authorities and drivers must be very careful of introducing more sources of distraction either inside or outside the vehicle.

    1. Educate drivers on the risks of distraction when performing other tasks while driving, as well as how to manage and reduce the occurrence of distractions - physical, visual, cognitive, emotional and technological - while driving.
    2. Continue to support education campaigns in coordination with appropriate and timely enforcement activities targeting sources of driver distraction.
    3. Ensure that road signs/markings and roadside advertising are used appropriately so as not to create added confusion or distraction for drivers.
    4. Ensure that legislation, regulations and standards keep pace with the introduction and use of devices in vehicles which potentially distract drivers while driving.
    5. Enforce current laws relating to mobile phone use while driving and educate the community on the general distraction resulting from mobile phone use – hands-free or otherwise.
    6. Continue to research the types of driver distraction and their impacts on the driving task.
  • Data Analysis Unit 2009, Personal Correspondence to RACQ, 03/06/09, Queensland Transport, Brisbane, QLD, Australia.

    Regan, M. 2005, ‘Driver Distraction: Reflections on the Past, Present and Future’ in Australasian College of Road Safety 2005, Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, Volume 1, No. 2, November 2005, p22-33.

Things to note

The information in this article has been prepared for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal advice or specific advice to any particular person. Any advice contained in the document is general advice, not intended as legal advice or professional advice and does not take into account any person’s particular circumstances. Before acting on anything based on this advice you should consider its appropriateness to you, having regard to your objectives and needs.