Driver Knowledge Tests

40% of drivers drive distracted according to IAM (but it’s really 100%). How do you avoid driving distracted?

If you have just passed your driving test and you are starting to drive on your own, how do you remain in control and give your full attention to the road at all times? You will still be finding that driving takes a lot of your brain power because you haven’t built the neural networks yet that make some things automatic. If you get distracted, it can be dangerous because you don’t have the experience to let your reflexes take over.

Let’s look at some scenarios where you might be distracted:

  • Changing the radio or sat nav
  • Turning on the air conditioning or adjusting its settings
  • Talking on the phone (hands-free, remember!)
  • Transporting pets, or (worse) children
  • Daydreaming
  • Smoking
  • Stress and preoccupation with what’s happening in your life that’s worrying you
  • Scratching an itch
  • Sneezing or coughing
  • Talking to a passenger
  • Rubbernecking or looking at something interesting around you
  • Eating or drinking
  • Receiving a text (whether you look at it or not, it will distract you momentarily, and you should not be looking at it anyway)

The IAM conducted a survey about driving while distracted.┬áThe Institute of Advanced Motorists takes existing drivers and teaches them how to be amazing drivers and, really, they should just stick to that rather than releasing contradictory figures like they did a couple of weeks back. In the UK the IAM polled 1447 respondents to see whether they concentrate when driving. It didn’t ask for how long, or whether this meant absolutely every time the respondents drove, what conditions the driving was under (e.g. transporting kids), or what type of journeys (long or short, for example). The survey was purely self-reporting, i.e. people had to say whether they concentrated when driving, and we all know that people lie to make themselves look better.

In fact, in a survey that the IAM released the following week(!) they contradicted themselves by saying that 100% of people drive distracted, and this is correct. Now, you won’t be distracted all the time, but you will be at some times. Everyone will be at some times, and some distractions are more dangerous than others. A wasp in the car is an incredibly dangerous distraction (I would pull over unless it was absolutely unsafe to do so); however, a gleaming Ferrari F12 parked on the side of the road is a temporary distraction that I would definitely glance at, but it’s still a distraction. Sure, it temporarily diverts my attention from the road but, in all honesty, I wouldn’t be able to not be distracted at least for a very small amount of time, by that car. I can limit the distraction, though.

What can you do to avoid distractions?

Your brain looks to keep itself occupied. Once driving becomes second nature and you’ve built all the neural networks you need to operate the car without thinking, your brain gets bored. Unless there’s a lot of action happening to keep it occupied then it will try to find its own distractions. I’ve even caught myself thinking about random things (a song in this case), when doing over 200kph down the straight when I was in a motor race! Relatively speaking, the straight didn’t hold many challenges so my brain looked to maintain its level of activity.

However, you have to acknowledge distractions to be able to control them:

External out-of-vehicle distractions

When you are driving you should be constantly scanning the road ahead. You will see things that are coming up that may be of concern or interest. The second stage of this thought is whether you need to be looking at it. In the case of a Ferrari F12, you would notice this anyway because it will be a parked car and you should be scanning parked cars in case a child or pet runs out from behind one. The technique is not to linger with that distraction. You’ve seen it, you’ve acknowledged it, now keep scanning.

External in-vehicle distractions

If you transport pets then you should use an appropriate harness or restraint, or some kind of pet box. You should not have your animals roaming free inside the car. For one, they become heavy projectiles in the event of an accident.

If you transport children, put them in the back with something to keep them occupied – a book or (if they get motion sickness) a music player or give them some games they can play amongst themselves. Better still, have a passenger looking after them.

If you need to change the air conditioning or radio, pick your moment to minimise risk. Drop back from the vehicle in front, choose a piece of road that is straight and where there is no pedestrian activity. If you are driving in the city you can do it at traffic lights.

If you have passengers you are talking to, you can always stop talking when you need to concentrate more. Just be especially careful of having drunk friends in the car.

Internal distractions

These come in two forms: physiological and psychological.

Physiological distractions are hunger, thirst, needing to go to the toilet, some kind of pain due to an injury, etc.

Psychological distractions are things like anxiety, worry, excitement, anger, etc.

Hunger, thirst and your ablutions are easy to resolve – it’s best to pull off the road to eat, but if you have a water bottle in the vehicle you may be able to carefully take a drink (making sure you don’t block your view with the bottle). If you are on a motorbike then you will need to stop. If you find yourself experiencing any of the others then you need to see a professional such as a massage therapist or a psychologist.

Is being distracted inevitable?

Yes. You cannot avoid it because it is how your brain functions. It will be impossible to concentrate 100% of the time, especially on a long journey. Bear in mind that your eyes will still be looking ahead and will give your brain priority signals when a negative situation starts to unfold. This is why you shouldn’t take your eyes off the road, for example, to send or read a text.

If you notice you are distracted:

Acknowledge the distraction – if it’s taking your attention from the road, it’s a distraction

Build up your buffer – drop back from the vehicle in front, reduce your speed slightly

Resolve the distraction – you may need to pull over, or wait until you can stop safely

If it’s something not related to driving, e.g. anxiety, seek professional help

Talk yourself through what you are doing while you are driving to bring your attention back – this is called a ‘commentary drive’ and it’s where you describe to yourself what you are seeing, and what you are doing. It’s like mindfulness for the road.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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