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Distracted driving is a diversion of a driver’s attention while driving. In other words, any time an object, person, task, or event that is not related to driving takes the driver’s attention away from the driving task, they are driving while distracted.
A lot of the early focus on distracted driving was centered on cell phone use. For much of the driving public, distracted driving is synonymous with cell phone use, but the reality is that this is just one small part of the problem (TIRF 2011). Whenever a driver participates in a non-driving activity, this has the potential to distract them from the primary task of driving (NHTSA 2010a). Any task that a driver performs while driving is a secondary task (Tasca 2005), including eating/drinking, grooming, adjusting in-vehicle technology, using a cell phone, observing pedestrians, and talking with passengers. These activities are common examples of distraction.
Distracted drivers commit a wide variety of errors, from control sloppiness (wandering/weaving, irregular speed), to loss of situational awareness (following too close, sign/signal disobedience). There errors increase the likelihood of being involved in or causing crashes.
Distracted driving presents a significant road safety risk. While relatively few drivers admit to having been involved in a distracted-driving related crash (7%), many more Canadians admit to having to steer to avoid a collision (TIRF 2010). Twenty-seven percent of drivers surveyed by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) in 2010 reported that they had to brake or steer to avoid a collision in the past year because they were distracted by something outside their vehicle, and 12.6% had to brake or steer because of something inside their vehicle (TIRF 2010).
In a recent Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) survey, 19.2% of respondents agreed that they would be likely or very likely to drive while distracted if their vehicle had modern safety features. This is concerning because these features do not compensate for the effects of distraction.
The types of errors that distracted drivers commit can limit their ability to benefit from safety features in several ways. Many safety features depend on drivers to supply appropriate and timely braking and steering directions. A driver’s ability to provide this input is hindered if they are distracted by something. This can have consequences for the performance of safety features. For example, if a driver is looking at something on the side of the road, they may not notice another driver attempting to change lanes. By the time the merging car is spotted, it may be too late to avoid a collision, even if antilock braking systems (ABS), brake assist, and electronic brake-force distribution (EBFD) all engaged as soon as the driver hit the brakes.
Distracted drivers also lose their sense of situational awareness. In other words, distraction makes it harder to see the “big picture” of what is happening on and beside the road. As such, drivers will be slower to notice and react to potential hazards. This delay in reaction time gives safety features less time and space to work, thereby potentially limiting the safety benefits of those features. Similarly, even if adaptive headlights worked perfectly and illuminated sections of the road that would otherwise have been left obscured, a distracted driver may still not notice obstacles and react to them quickly enough to really accrue all the benefits of advanced safety features.
The best way to get the most out of safety features is to continue to drive safely and to avoid engaging in dangerous driving behaviours like distracted driving.
The results of a 2010 TIRF survey reveal that Canadians frequently engage in many distracting activities while driving:
While distractions can affect drivers of any age and experience level, distracted driving seems to pose an elevated crash risk for younger drivers. In fact, the younger a driver is, the more likely it is that they had to steer or brake to avoid a collision in the past year due to a distraction inside their vehicle (TIRF 2007).
Though younger drivers are involved in more distracted driving crashes, older drivers deal with more distractions when they drive, including taking care of children and thinking of other things. One reason why adult distracted drivers do not crash as often as their younger counterparts is that adult drivers tend to slow down when distracted, whereas younger drivers tend to maintain the same speed (Smiley 2008).
The focus of Canadian legislation on distracted driving has been on the use of cell phones and other electronic communication devices. With the exception of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Canada has banned the use of hand-held electronic communication devices and enforces the ban with fines ranging from $115 in Quebec to $280 in Saskatchewan. In addition to fines, drivers caught using hand-held devices will be issued between three and six demerit points (except in Manitoba where no demerit points are issued) (Transport Canada 2011).