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Driver Distractions – advice to employers

Published: 7/5/15

Driver distraction is now thought to play a part in up to 30% of road collisions. QBE says that around a third of the motor fleet claims paid by them relate to policyholders driving into the rear of the vehicle in front. The environments we drive in are now busier, with more distractions outside the vehicle than ever before. Here the insurer offers specific advice to employers on driver distractions and the use of nomadic devices.

Employers should identify and manage distractions when employees are driving at work. Drivers should:

  • Not be eating and drinking whilst driving
  • Not be distracted by the controls on stereo and climate control equipment
  • Be securing loose objects within the cab
  • Not be using nomadic devices such as mobile phones
  • Be pulling over to read maps and attend to personal grooming
  • Not be distracted by people and pets within the vehicle
  • Not be distracted by people and objects outside the cab such as people they know on the street or interesting buildings etc.
  • Not be handling paperwork in the cab, e.g. when looking for a delivery address
  • Not be using devices to access social media sites when driving

In vehicle distractions - Nomadic Devices

Of all the in-vehicle sources of distraction, including map reading, other passengers, adjusting the radio etc. nomadic devices pose the largest distraction. Nomadic devices include mobile phones, smart phones, portable navigation devices, MP3 players and tablets such as iPads.

It’s recommended that employers have driving at work policies which request that drivers do not use nomadic devices if they have a negative effect on driving. Those devices that do not have a negative effect on driving are portable navigation devices. These devices are said to have an ambivalent effect on driving because whilst they are a distraction, they also help the driver in journey planning.

Particular attention should be given to younger drivers who tend to have more technology friendly lifestyles. A recent study indicated that their MP3 player had distracted 60% of young drivers whilst they had been driving. Non-driving related nomadic devices such as mobile phones should be seen to have a completely negative effect on driving as they cause physical, visual, auditory and cognitive distractions.

Policies should clearly state how portable navigation devices should be located so as to not obstruct the windscreen screen and how they should not be manipulated whilst driving. The policy should also clearly state that any other use of nomadic devices whilst driving is prohibited.

The Risk Factors

Nomadic devices are not factory fitted to vehicles. This means their keyboards have not been designed to be used whilst driving. The keyboards are too small and cause a distraction to drivers when they are being used. The other four main distractions are:

  • Physical distraction – instead of steering or changing gear, the driver has to use a hand to use the nomadic device.
  • Visual distraction – devices mounted on the windscreen can block the driver’s view. The device pulls the driver’s eyes off the road, causing a lack of visual attentiveness affecting ability to see hazards on the road.
  • Auditory distraction – this is most pronounced when using the mobile phone and involves a driver continuously focusing on sound rather than on the road environment.
  • Cognitive distraction – when two mental tasks are carried out at the same time the result is reduced reaction time and lack of attention. This occurs when manipulating a nomadic device or having a mobile phone conversation.

What the researchers say

  • The risk of collision within 10 minutes of using a mobile phone whilst driving was between 3 and 6.5 times greater than when not using a phone.
  • Younger drivers are more at risk than older drivers when using mobile phones when driving.
  • The heavier the phone use, the more likely the user will crash.
  • Driving ability is impaired more when using a mobile phone than it is by being on the UK drink driving legal limit.
  • A US study found that inattention was found to account for 93% of accidents involving the vehicle in front.
  • Another study found that secondary tasks like talking into a mobile phone doubled the risk of collision whereas a more complex secondary task such as operating a PDA or dialing a number increased the risk of a crash by a factor of three.
  • It has been found that texting whilst driving is the most dangerous activity. It was found to increase the risk of being involved in a safety critical event by a factor of 23.
  • Studies have shown that it is less distracting to have a conversation with a passenger than compared to using a mobile phone.
  • One in nine vehicles veers out of lane when the driver is using a mobile phone.
  • Most research has been done using vehicles with automotive transmission. This will underestimate the danger of using mobile phones and driving when compared to driving a vehicle with manual transmission.

Hands free is risky too.

Many research studies have found that using hands free equipment poses a significant risk when driving. Studies have shown that hands free equipment use does not reduce the impact on reaction time of driver distraction when compared to using hand held equipment. Whilst hands free equipment provides less of a physical distraction, the cognitive distraction is still present and this is the biggest issue for drivers.

In the US it has been found that drivers on a hands free telephone call take 20% longer to hit the brakes compared to normal driving. The UK Transport Research Laboratory found that at 70 miles an hour, stopping distance for normal conditions was 31 metres, for a driver under the influence of alcohol, it was 35 metres, for a driver using hands free equipment it was 39 metres and for a driver using hand held equipment it was 45 metres.

Employees need to be made aware that using hands free mobile phone equipment is as hazardous, if not more so than driving after drinking alcohol.

Are there any Benefits to Driving Provided by Nomadic Devices?

Portable navigation devices can have a positive impact on driving because they can make a journey shorter, reduce the need to map read and reduce stress. However, they will have a negative impact if they are operated during driving or if they direct the driver through a town centre when an out of town route could be used. These devices can also give traffic information and some can receive job instructions, thus reducing the need to use a telephone. The main issue for employees to remember is not to interfere with the device when driving. The devices should also be kept up to date so they do not give incorrect directions that could cause dangerous situations on the road.

Employees who drive for work are often lone workers. Having a mobile phone is of benefit from the health and safety aspect of managing lone working risk, as long as the phone is not used whilst the employee is driving.

Out of Vehicle Distractions

We drive on ever more congested roads; town and city centers are busy, whilst advertisements on hoardings continue to distract drivers. Outside distractions range from seeing someone we know to driving past a crash scene or getting confused by road works signs. Studies show that both young and experienced drivers take long glances away from the road when looking at external distractions. Experienced drivers have better situational awareness, which suggests less distraction, but in reality, the level of distraction is not reduced by experience. Any distraction can have a significant negative impact on maintaining position on the motorway. At 40 mph a car travels 59 feet a second; a long glance can lead to a considerable distance of travel without looking at the road ahead.

Managing the Risk

Every business needs to have a safe driving at work policy that includes the issue of managing driver distraction.

When driving at work, the employee should be focused 100% on driving. The employee should be asked to sign a pledge to state that nomadic devices will not be used whilst driving unless they are portable navigation devices. Comprehension checks should also be used to enforce the content of the policy and the acknowledgement by signature for the policy provides a robust audit trail.

Policies on the use of mobile phones should advise employees not to make or receive calls whilst driving and to plan journeys so stops can be made to check messages. The message should be ‘Engine on, phone off’.

Calls should go to voicemail and a suitable message should be left. The caller should check that the person is driving and if they are, the call should be terminated. The company work scheduling approach should take account of people who are driving, e.g. drivers should not be expected to participate in conference calls. Points for employers to consider include:

  • Senior managers should lead by example
  • There should be a clear policy in preventing driver distraction
  • The company communication strategy may need to be reviewed
  • Request office based employees not to expect their colleagues to take calls on mobile phones whilst they are driving
  • Communicate to employees why the policies are in place
  • Provide training to drivers on the content of the distraction prevention policy
  • Create a safety culture so drivers do not feel pressurised to use a mobile phone when driving
  • Mobile phones should be issued on condition of the policy being followed
  • Update portable navigation systems regularly and consider buying devices that cannot be manipulated when the vehicle is moving.
  • Inform drivers on the correct location for mounting portable navigation devices.
  • Match telephone useage records to telematics data to build a profile of driver behaviour and monitor the implementation of company policy.
  • When a driver does need to take his/her eyes off the road, ensure that they are in the habit of checking the road and associated pavements first to ensure there are no upcoming hazards.


We drive vehicles that carry increasing amounts of technology with the ability to distract us from driving.

The roads of today are also more congested and there are ever increasing amounts of out of vehicle distractions.

Long glances away from the road of two seconds or more are known to significantly increase the risk of distraction related vehicle collisions.

Both young and experienced drivers are equally susceptible to distractions outside the vehicle and this has a negative impact on hazard perception whilst driving. It is also known that talking on mobile phones and focusing on nomadic devices in the vehicle presents a range of distractions that significantly increase the risk of a vehicle collision.

Employees and employers can do much to reduce the risk of distraction causing road accidents. The employer can introduce a culture into its business that minimises the risk of distraction. Indeed, the employer has a duty towards the employee who is driving for work in respect of providing training, information and equipment that reduces the risk of driver distraction.

The employee could themselves be charged with a range of offences including dangerous driving and driving without due care and attention, if their distraction led to an accident. The argument for drivers to keep their attention 100% on the road is therefore substantial!


Hole, G, 2007, The Psychology of Driving, Psychology Press, New York
PRAISE, 2010, Minimising In Vehicle Distraction, European Transport Safety Council,
Divekar, G, 2011, The Effect of External Distractions on Novice and Experienced Drivers
Anticipation of Hazards and Vehicle Control, University of Massachusetts
Wallace, B, 2003, External to Vehicle Driver Distraction, Scottish Executive Social Research,
The Stationery Office Bookshop, Edinburgh

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