Ten driver distractions to avoid

Driver and dog in car

With the national road toll tipped to reach a new record this year, we explore some of the most common distractions that can affect Australian drivers and endanger safety.

Research by the NSW Transport Roads and Maritime Services Department indicates that at least 14% of all crashes involve the driver being distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle.[i] The department also attributes one in ten road-related fatalities directly to driver distraction.[ii]

The Australian Road Research Board's Professor Michael Regan admits that the real numbers are much higher. Comparing the numbers to research from the USA, Professor Regan suggests that actual numbers might be closer to 68% of all crashes as opposed to 14%.[iii] While the exact research numbers may be disputable, the dangers of distraction aren't. Here, we explore some common distractions that can be a threat to road safety for drivers across Australia.

1. Mobile phones

Studies indicate that using a mobile phone (or device) while driving can increase a driver's risk of being involved in a serious crash by up to four times.[iv] In fact, using phones while driving can be as dangerous as drink driving.[v][vi] Even a small distraction, like glancing at your mobile phone can be extremely dangerous. For example, taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds while travelling at 60 km/h means being distracted on the road for over 30 metres. Coupled with an average person's reaction time of about 2 seconds, this can mean that the driver is distracted for nearly 60 metres, greatly increasing the risk of a serious crash.[vii]

2. Eating or drinking at the wheel

You may not realise it, but your morning caffeine fix or enjoying breakfast on the go can also be potentially dangerous when driving.[viii] Recent research by Griffith University on driving while eating and drinking showed that food requiring concentration to limit spillages can lead to greater distractions. The study found it can be just as dangerous as texting while driving.[ix]

3. Pets in the car

While our pets can often be treated as members of the family, there are laws in place about pets travelling in vehicles. And rightly so. Research into motor vehicle collisions and the involvement of pets has indicated an association, indicating just how important it is to restrain your ‘fur babies’ when travelling with them.[x]

4. Kids in the car

Squabbling or bored children in a car can often require a level of attention, which can be quite distracting. It doesn't matter how short or long the drive, it's essential to keep your kids entertained so that you can focus on the road. Keep favourite books, magazines, and toys in the car and within easy reach, so that you can dissolve any boredom or potential fights in quick time.

5. Sunlight and visibility

Driving into the sun at dawn or dusk can be particularly distracting if it forces you to squint. According to researchers, it can take up to five minutes for drivers to adapt to the sunlight on a very bright, sunny day. In some cases, impacts from bright sunlight can affect drivers for up to 48 minutes.[xi] To avoid looking into the sun, wear sunglasses, pull down your car's sun visor or just stop driving until the sun sets.

6. Music

Switching between radio stations, plugging and unplugging USBs or devices, changing CDs or choosing songs on your music player can take your focus off the road. Unfortunately, these simple actions can turn into a potential deadly hazard to not only yourself, but others on the road.

7. In-car systems and navigation

Recent research has indicated that it isn't just phones that affect how we drive. New technologies in the form of in-car technologies or voice-assisted phone-based navigation systems can also be a distraction. Apart from demanding a driver's attention, they can also require complex cognitive processes to control, which can take away attention from the road and hamper a person's ability to drive safely.[xii] Always set your destination before you start driving and keep your device in a position where you can see it without taking your eyes completely off the road.

8. A surprise

Car accidents can unfortunately happen when something unexpected surprises you while driving. A spider in the car, a bee sting, or a passenger sneezing can give you a fright, cause you to panic and slam your foot on the brake or swerve. If possible, keep your cool and pull over somewhere safely. Then, sort out whatever has distracted you. Just take your time to calm down before joining traffic again.

9. Your own reflection

Hey there, good looking! Primping or grooming in the mirror is a surprisingly common distraction for drivers. Applying make-up, fixing hair, adjusting your clothes or simply appreciating your own reflection can divert your attention away from what's happening around you on the road. If absolutely required, make sure you stop and fix your appearance, instead of doing it while the car is in motion.

10. Fatigue

Driver fatigue can have a significant impact on driving. As well as the risk of falling asleep, drivers can have their attention distracted by actions to fight off tiredness, such as sipping a coffee, listening to the radio, calling people on the phone, and more.[xiii] If you’re feeling fatigued, it’s best to avoid driving and get some rest before getting behind the wheel again.

Keeping your focus on the road is essential when driving, but some accidents are unavoidable. Following these simple tips can help you reduce the number of distractions encountered while driving. While nothing can replace the life of a loved one, car insurance <FI Car Insurance page> can help protect you from financial loss in the event of a car accident.


[i] NSW Government Transport, Roads and Maritime Services, Driving distractions and crash risk, http://www.rms.nsw.gov.au/roads/safety-rules/safe-driving/driving-distractions.html, viewed 28 August, 2018.

[ii] NSW Government Transport, Roads and Maritime Services, Driving distractions and crash risk, http://www.rms.nsw.gov.au/roads/safety-rules/safe-driving/driving-distractions.html, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[iii] Bowden T, 2018, 'Distracted drivers urged to put mobile phones away, remember safety', ABC News, 3 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-02/drivers-urged-to-stop-using-mobile-phones-behind-the-wheel/9255482, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[iv] McEvoy, S., Stevenson, M., McCartt, A., Woodward, M., Haworth, C., Palamara, P. and Cercarelli, R, 2005, ‘Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case‐crossover study’, BMJ 331: 428‐30, https://www.bmj.com/content/331/7514/428, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[v] Stayer, D., Drews, F. and Crouch, D, 2006, ‘A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver’, Human Factors, 48(2): 381‐91, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2e34/0f8a2482abee0d24dc7721fd56cb5a768ed6.pdf, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[vi] Leung S, Croft RJ, Jackson ML, Howard ME, McKenzie RJ 2012, 'A comparison of the effect of mobile phone use and alcohol consumption on driving simulation performance', Traffic Injury Prevention 13(6), 566 - 74, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23137086, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[vii] Queensland Government, 'Driver distraction', Join the Drive, https://jointhedrive.qld.gov.au/driver-distraction/factsheet, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[viii] Geared, 'The top five driver distractions', Road and Maritime Services NSW, http://www.rms.nsw.gov.au/geared/your_driving_skills/staying_safe/driven_to_distraction.html, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[ix] Irwin C, Monement S and Desbrow B, 2015, 'The influence of drinking, texting, and eating on simulated driving performance', Traffic Injury Prevention, Vol. 16, Iss. 2, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15389588.2014.920953#.VPWawfmUetZ, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[x] Huisingh C, Levitan E. B., Irvin M. R., Owsley C. and McGwin G. J. 2016, 'Driving with pets and motor vehicle collision involvement among older drivers:  a prospective population-based study', Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 88, pp. 169 - 74, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000145751530169X, viewed 28 August, 2018.

[xi] Pegin P and Sitnichuk E 2017, 'The Effect of Sun Glare: Concept, characteristics, classification', Transportation Research Procedia, https://ac.els-cdn.com/S2352146517300777/1-s2.0-S2352146517300777-main.pdf?_tid=c0fb31d5-01a5-42e3-848e-234db0f95714&acdnat=1535427561_2ec5a264fb1d645c985c507ee4efd8d9, viewed 28 August, 2018.

[xii] Australian Road Research Board 2017, 'Insights into an emergent and complex problem for in-vehicle technologies', ARRB News, 24 April, 2017, https://www.arrb.com.au/news/insights-into-an-emergent-and-complex-problem-for-in-vehicle-technologies, viewed 23 August, 2018.

[xiii] Williamson A, 2007, 'Fatigue and coping with driver distraction', in I. J. Faulks, M. Regan, M. Stevenson, J. Brown, A. Porter and J. D. Irwin (Eds.). Distracted Driving, Sydney, NSW: Australasian College of Road Safety, pages 611 - 622http://acrs.org.au/files/papers/24%20Williamson%20Fatigue%20and%20coping%20with%20driver%20distraction.pdf, viewed 23 August, 2018.

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