The most common types of driving distraction

"Each day in the United States, approximately nine people are killed, and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver." U.S. Department of Health & Human Services 

By some estimates, up to 80 per cent of all crashes involve some form of driver distraction. Yet when we talk about distraction, we are sometimes guilty of exclusively focusing on the biggest culprit: smartphone distraction. In this article, we list all the most common types of distractions employees, and drivers must be mindful of when driving. 

First, let's start with a clear definition of distracted driving:    

"Distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system. Anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

1. Generally distracted or "lost in thought"

Eire insurance's research in the U.S. examining police report data in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System concluded that by far the biggest cause of distracted driving was a driver's mind wandering long enough to lead to a collision. They believe this could have accounted for nearly 62% of driving fatalities in 2010 and 2011.

Driving long distances without required breaks and subsequent driving fatigue are certainly contributing factors to this type of distraction.

2. Smartphone use

Smartphones, while driving, are one of the greatest culprits of collisions and fatalities. The following quote tells you all you need to know about their impact:

"The U.S. had mass adoption of smartphones in 2008. In 2009 the motor vehicle death rates stopped dropping! There has even been an increase since then. In fact, since then, we have had multiple years when we've seen an increase. There was a 14% increase in March 2020!" Tom Goeltz, Vice President, Risk Management Services at Hays Companies

The National Safety Council (NSC) in the USA estimates that crashes from cell phone use account for 27% of all auto accidents. While in the U.K. research by Kent County Council has revealed that using a smartphone hands-free impairs driving and increases stopping distances more than if you were at the drink-drive limit.

3. Other occupants

Your passengers can place a significant demand on your attention. Drivers and their passengers need to be mindful of the risk associated with this. This is especially true for younger drivers. Research by U.K. insurer MORE TH>N found that 35% of young drivers say their friends are distracting passengers. 62% agreed that the more passengers in a car at the same time, the more distracting it is.

4. Outside person, object or event

Interestingly, external distractions, let it be staring at a crash, other drivers, a billboard, other road users (to name a few) are an even more significant distraction than other vehicle occupants. According to some estimates, drivers actually spend a little more than half of their time behind the wheel paying attention to something other than the road. But 'rubbernecking', the conscious decision to stare at something other than the road is the greatest factor in collisions when it comes to outside events or objects.

A 2003 study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that rubbernecking was responsible for 16% of all distracted driving accidents.

5. Eating or drinking

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the "secondary task distraction" of eating or drinking from an open container while driving increases the likelihood of near-miss crashes or crashes by nearly 39%.

6. Adjusting navigation, audio or climate controls

Once again, interacting with things like your radio, or the airconditioning could take your eyes off the road. Whenever possible, making these adjustments before driving could make all the difference.

"At 50km per hour, even a 2-second glance at your phone means you'll travel up to 28 metres blind. What will you miss?" Fleet Auto News

In fact modern cars, with numerous touchscreens have potentially made things worse. A study conducted by the Transportation Research Laboratory found touchscreens dramatically slow driver response time.

"Participants in trials showed a reduction in average speed increase in deviation of headway and larger deviation of lane position for most tasks. Comparison with previous driver impairment studies showed that the increase in reaction time when interacting with either system using touch was higher than previously measured forms of impairment, including texting and hand-held calls." TRL Report

7. Adjusting other vehicle devices and controls

Adjusting things like mirrors and seatbelts certainly should be avoided when a vehicle is in motion.  

8. Moving objects

Moving objects in the car, such as insects and pets, can lead to drivers taking their eyes off the road.

A AAA survey of people who frequently drive with their pets found that 64 per cent of drivers admitted to engaging in a potentially distracting pet-related activity, and 29 per cent admitted to actually being distracted by their pets. Eighty-four per cent of those surveyed allowed their pets to ride unrestrained. 

9. Smoking-related

This to some of us feels like belonging to a bygone era. Yet around the globe, the act of smoking, lighting up or putting ashes in an ashtray is sadly still a common occurrence whilst driving. 

A study in Italy dating back to 2007 even suggested smoking whilst driving was more dangerous than phone use. 

10. Using or reaching for a device brought into the car

Devices brought into the car could be things like headphones, your navigational device or maybe even sunglasses. The message remains the same: prepare for these before you set off on your journey.

What can employers do?

Awareness, education and where necessary, a clear and accessible driver policy is essential to ensure your employees are mindful of all these distractions and avoid them to the best of their ability.


A variety of solutions are available on the market to help businesses combat driver distraction, from heavy-duty and capital intensive dashcam systems to lighter touch app-based solutions like Brightmile

You may be interested in these…

Let's make your drivers safer, together! Get a free demo

"The Brightmile app is the perfect mix of Safety, Fleet, Sustainability and HR tools to manage the fleet and engage drivers"

Global HSE Manager, SGS

Request a Demo