What are the most common driver distractions on the road?

“The other day I got such a fright. I also became really angry. I was behind this car on a road to Johannesburg, and I began to notice that things were not right. The driver kept drifting into my lane and then would drift back. The driver was also going quite slowly, and then would suddenly pick up speed. Eventually, I managed to overtake the car, and noticed that the driver was busy texting while driving! This is scary stuff. I think this is as bad as drunken driving.” Driving on SA’s roads (any roads for that matter) really requires the driver to give their full attention at all times, especially during the humdrum of their daily commute.

Driver distraction is a much-debated topic, and it is still not well understood.1 The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines driver distraction as “the diversion of attention away from activities critical for safe driving towards a competing activity.” In plainer English, this means that the driver’s attention on driving is taken away by something or someone. This leaves the driver being a really dangerous driver.

For example, during a cell phone conversation, the driver’s thinking resources which should be constantly used to analyse the ever-changing driving scenario unfolding in front of the driver, is now being “stolen” from the driver by an interfering cell phone call. The result is that the “pure driving” thinking process is at a much more reduced state and not as sharp as before.

A few USA-based universities’ have done interesting research on the subject. A study by the University of South Carolina2 showed that planning the words you want to say in a conversation taxes the brain’s resources much more than just plain listening. Research by the University of Illinois showed that cell phone use was just as distracting when compared to interacting with passengers.2

Distracted driving is not the same as when the driver is just showing a lack of attention. The latter occurs when a driver is paying less attention to the driving task and is not occurring because of any particular trigger (e.g. day-dreaming). The diversion of the driver’s attention in distracted driving is not the same as the driver’s lack of attention that is caused when driving under the influence of alcohol, or drugs for instance.


There are four ways that you and I, as drivers, can be distracted:

  • Visual distraction – i.e. we look away from the road to see something else.
  • Analytical distraction – our thoughts are now more with the phone conversation then trying to work out what’s happening ahead on the road.
  • Physical distraction – this would be when the driver holds a cell phone in the one hand and tries to dial a number, or is leaning forward to sort out the air conditioning.
  • Hearing distraction – the cell phone suddenly rings, or the radio is on so loud you don’t hear the siren of the ambulance.


INSIDE THE CAR – this usually involves eating, drinking, listening to the radio, changing CDs/music, and also chatting to passengers. In fact adjusting the radio or changing CDs has been a major cause of car crashes in the USA.4 There are more and more electronic “gadgets” for the car nowadays that can distract drivers – cell phones, laptops, iPods, as well as GPS navigation systems. Undoubtedly, GPS navigational systems are much safer than looking at a map book while driving, but they can nonetheless still distract the driver. Hearing the GPS navigational system telling you “turn left in 100 metres” is still safer than taking your eyes of the road to see what is on an electronic map. There are so many technologies that are being built into modern cars nowadays, such as Bluetooth technology and other electronic systems that allow people to access emails and the Internet while they are in their cars. Adjusting the air conditioning or other buttons on the dash board also can cause distraction. The big issue still remains that chatting to someone, texting, and dialling numbers on a cell phone are serious triggers of distraction.

OUTSIDE THE CAR – this happens when the driver looks at buildings or beautiful mountains, or even billboards. In a study,1 video-powered billboards had a greater distracting effect on driving then static billboards.


There are different views on this – some research indicates that there is no difference between chatting to someone on a cell phone and chatting with your passengers. Recent research by a University of South Carolina psychology researcher showed that there is quite a big difference between the two. 2  There is a much greater risk of distraction when talking on the cell phone with someone than when chatting with someone in your car. This has been confirmed by the fact that reaction times of a driver to a dangerous situation on the road are considerably slower when talking on a cell phone compared to when talking to a passenger. Why should this be so?

Passengers are in tune with the driver and can stop the conversation when a threatening situation arises on the road, whereas the person talking to the driver on a cell phone is completely disconnected from the driver’s traffic situation. So when the driver is fast approaching something dangerous on the road, the person talking to the driver on a cell phone will just carry on talking as if nothing is wrong. That person on the other end of the cell phone call continues to “hold” the driver tight in their conversation, resulting in the driver not being able to disengage and properly analyse the situation and react appropriately. Having said that, passengers are not completely “off the hook” – for example, a misbehaving or screaming child which has their mother trying to discipline them while she is driving can be very distracting too. Passengers that are drinking or shouting and singing can also affect the attention of the driver.


The last word has not been said on this issue. A University of Utah study2 in 2003 concluded that “cell phone drivers exhibited greater impairment than drunk drivers.” Obviously we cannot base everything on one study’s conclusion. The American Automobile Association (AAA) for Traffic Safety found from a poll survey that 87% of people found that texting and emailing while driving is very dangerous, this is almost the same as the 90% who viewed drunk driving as a threat.2


In 2009, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that text messaging showed the greatest risk compared to cell phone conversations.2 Such drivers were 23 times more likely to be involved in some critical event on the road when compared with cell phone interactions. The problem with texting is that drivers on average take their eyes off the road for 4 out of 6 seconds when texting.


An interesting situation arises when you get into a taxi or a bus and discover to your horror that the driver is just about permanently on their cell phone or is forever chatting on his hand-free phone.3 As far as you are concerned, the taxi driver is potentially placing you in great danger due to the distractions. This is where the taxi company hopefully has serious rules in place that state there should be no use of cell phones by the taxi driver while driving. Passengers should be allowed to complain to taxi or bus company management if this rule is broken.


It is important to know what percentage of drivers are involved with distractions whilst driving, as well as how often, and for how long are the driver is distracted. In a study conducted in the USA,1 drivers were generally distracted 30% of the time, with eating and drinking being the main activities. Nonetheless, this figure may well have changed considerably, as in-vehicle communication systems is the norm of today. Much more data is required to understand this problem more fully.

We implore all South African motorists to play it safe and drive responsibly, even if it is on their daily commute on the N1 to Johannesburg.



2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_phones_and_driving_safety

3 http://www.thenational.ae/uae/transport/stop-using-the-mobile-phone-while-driving-uae-residents-warn-cabbies

4 http://www.waterdowncollision.com/blog/safe-driving/leading-causes-of-car-accidents/


This article was prepared by Eric Sandmann in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views and opinions of Prime Meridian Direct (Pty) Ltd, FSP41040.The views and opinions in the article should not be attributed to anyone but the author unless expressly stated. Nothing in this article should be relied upon as advice, this publication is presented for informational purposes only. No person should act or refrain from acting in reliance on any information found in this article, without first obtaining proper financial advice from the appropriate professional. The author makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, or completeness, of any information linked from, referred to, or contained in this article. The author reserves the right, to edit and change the content of this article.

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