Implementation and enforcement of a code of practice can reduce the threat from one of the biggest dangers facing road users.
Driver distraction has become one of the biggest risks in road safety. The increased proliferation of technology such as smartphones and sat-nav systems has provided more reasons for drivers to take their eyes off the road than ever before.
Unfortunately, many are giving in to the temptation. A survey by road safety charity Brake found that 55% of the 25- to 34-year-olds questioned had sent or read a text message on their mobile while driving in the past year.
Despite it being illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving, more than four in 10 (42%) said they sent or read messages at least once a week.
The dangers of distraction, such as using a phone while behind the wheel, are well documented. EU data shows that distraction is a contributory factor in up to 30% of collisions, while research from TRL found reaction times of drivers talking on a hands-free phone to be 50% slower than driving under normal conditions.
“In road safety, we used to have the ‘fatal four’: speed, drink and drugs, seatbelt and fatigue,” says a spokesman for eDriving Fleet.
“Increasingly, it is the ‘fatal five’ with driver distraction joining them, so it is right up there with all the other big risk factors,” he adds.
A driver is distracted when they pay attention to a second activity while driving, which may cause them to become less observant or to make worse decisions about how to control the vehicle safely.
This lower standard of driving means that a driver is more likely to fail to anticipate hazards, and means accidents can occur due to the distraction.
With the Health and Safety Executive estimating that one-third of road accidents involve at-work drivers – as many as 20 fatalities and 250 serious injuries every week – distraction is a significant area of risk for company vehicle drivers.
“Busy lifestyles, technological advances and potentially perceived expectation to maintain a fully contactable and responsive ‘mobile office’ may pressurise drivers into taking potentially lethal risks while driving,” says Ken Buckley, head of sales at TCH Leasing.
“Irrespective, employers have a legal duty to manage all risks associated with driving for work purposes,” he adds.
These risks can be mitigated and reduced through the introduction of a driver distraction policy.
eDriving Fleet says: “This needs to focus on examples of visual and manual distractions, and cognitive or behavioural distractions (see panel top right).”
Mobile phone use is one of the biggest distractions faced by drivers, with Department for Transport figures showing that a driver impaired or distracted by their phone was a contributory factor in 440 accidents in Britain last year, including 22 which were fatal and 75 classed as serious.
Although use of hands-free mobile phones is legal, some fleets, such as Ocado, issue a blanket ban on phone use while driving. However, this may not always be practical due to operational demands.
BT, for example, had a “very animated debate” around two years ago over whether employees should be banned from using hands-free mobile phones while driving, says Dave Wallington, head of safety at BT.
“The operational team said they couldn’t sustain the ban, our sales team said they couldn’t work with it,” he says.
This led BT to commission specialist benchmarking research which found that few companies had introduced a complete ban, with the majority of businesses introducing some form of restriction on incoming/outgoing calls on hands-free devices.
While BT’s driver distraction policy does not ban all hands-free mobile phone use, it does tell drivers that the use of hands-free mobile phones must be strictly limited.
It also tells drivers:
- Do not participate in conference calls while driving.
- Do not read, write or respond to emails or texts while driving.
- Do not accept multiple calls while driving.
- It is against its policy to smoke (including vapour cigarettes) in company vehicles.
- Employees must not eat or drink while driving.
- If you’re using satellite navigation, programme it before you start driving. If you need to change the settings, don’t do this while you’re driving – find somewhere safe to stop and then do it.
Network Rail’s distraction policy also specifies that drivers must stop to change any setting on their sat-nav systems.
“It’s zero tolerance,” says Paul Young, business support manager – road fleet, at Network Rail. “We have life-saving rules and another one is that you never use a mobile phone in any way while driving.
“No hands-free, nothing. If we find anybody doing it then we treat it as gross misconduct straightaway.”
BT will consider disciplinary action against any employee who uses a hand-operated electronic device while driving. At Ocado, punishment is up to, and including, dismissal.
Ocado uses technology to police the ban: its delivery vehicles are fitted with camera systems which record both what happened in front of the vehicle and inside the cabin if a collision or harsh braking has taken place. This allows the company to see if the driver was on the phone at the time of an incident.
When a driver distraction policy is being developed, employees should be consulted and encouraged to provide their input and feedback on any potential scheme as this creates a level of ownership, aiding compliance, says Buckley.
eDriving Fleet adds: “The policy needs to be clear and backed up by communication and education, and you should make sure managers commit and lead by example.”
Once developed, employees should sign the document or online policy notice to prove they have understood and committed to complying with the policy.
“People may break the policy, but if you let it be known that if they do break it, and something bad happens, they are on their own. That may seem draconian, but as long as the policy is robust and people have signed up, that gives the organisation a defence against the driver.”
Types of distraction
Driver distraction can be classified into the following four sub-categories, dependent on what the source of distraction is:
- Cognitive or mental distraction: occurs when the driver’s mind is engaged with other tasks not necessary for safe driving, and that compete with mental or cognitive resources needed for driving.
- Visual distraction: occurs when a driver takes their eyes off the road. Typically this is caused when the driver looks away from the road to engage in a secondary activity either inside (e.g. radio, telephone, sat-nav) or outside (e.g. signs, advertisements) the vehicle.
- Auditory distraction: occurs when a driver is subjected to noise that diverts attention from activities necessary for safe driving. Auditory distraction is likely to be combined with other distractions such as looking to establish the source (e.g. to locate a ringing telephone) or paying attention to a phone conversation impacting on cognitive resources. Audible vehicle warnings meanwhile may offer a positive form of ‘attention grabbing’ when they highlight an essential safety risk (e.g. seatbelt warning or lane departure warning).
- Manual distraction: occurs when a driver takes their hands (either one or both) off the vehicle controls to attend to an activity that is not required for safe driving. The most common examples are eating, drinking and interacting with portable electronic devices (e.g. texting).