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Smoking while driving – physical and physiological dangers and risks

What happens when you smoke and drive?

The physical process of smoking

The act of taking a cigarette out of the packet, finding your lighter and coordinating your hand or hands to light the cigarette means you are likely to divert your gaze and your attention away from the road. Once you have lit it you then need to put your lighter and packet of cigarettes somewhere. Any distractions like these reduce your ability to quickly react to situations on the road. Video analysis in Australia of smokers lighting up in a car show that the driving distraction time is around 12 seconds, which is 160m at 50kph.

While you are smoking you can choose to keep the windows up with the air conditioning on, or you can open the window to let the smoke out. If you open the window, do you automatically turn towards it to blow the smoke? If so, are you taking your eyes off the road? You certainly are reducing your vision to the left if you turn your head to the right.

You will need to tap ash off the cigarette. Many new cars don’t come with an ash tray (or it’s an optional extra). The ashtray isn’t in the line of sight, so you might need to take your eyes off the road to use it. If you tap the ash outside you will need the window open.

If you drop your cigarette, or ash onto your clothes, what is your potential reaction? Depending on where the cigarette falls it can create a real risk of a fire. The centre of a cigarette can be as hot as 600 degrees Celsius.

The physiological effects while driving

If you are a smoker and you get the urge to have a cigarette the physiological changes in your body can make you anxious and irritable which can lead to you making rash decisions.

Once you manage to get a cigarette lit, that nicotine hits your brain and has an almost immediate effect of increasing stress. It’s a common misconception that smoking reduces stress. The relaxation effect you get is a return to the normal unstressed state that non-smokers are in all the time.

The smoke also has the immediate effect of irritating your lungs and causing a bronchospasm where the airways tighten. Less oxygen is available to be absorbed by the body. Phlegm production is increased and the likelihood of coughing is increased. Coughing fits can distract your attention from the road.

Passive smoking by passengers

If you have passengers in your car they will be subject to your second hand smoke. Even if you have the window open, quite a lot of smoke is blown into the back of the car. A study by

Smoking while driving was banned in the UK as of October 2015 in a move to help cut children’s exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke. The ban only extends to cars with passengers aged 0-17 years old and there are steep fines if it goes to court. In the UK 300,000 children are admitted to doctors’ surgeries each year through exposure to secondhand smoke.

Smoking has been illegal in cars in New South Wales with children aged under 16, with a A$250 fine; Queensland has a similar law with an A$200 fine.

Smoking is illegal in New Zealand cars if children aged 0-17 are present in the car.

Long term risks when driving

If you’ve been smoking a while then there’s a whole list of ailments and illnesses which will make driving more difficult for you. The main ones are adverse lipid profile (increases the risk of heart disease and stroke), atherosclerosis (increases the risk of heart disease), thrombosis (increases the risk of blood clots that can cause heart attack or stroke), constriction of blood vessels (increases risk of heart attack or stroke), increased heart rate (increases risk of heart disease and stroke) and increases blood pressure (increases risk of kidney damage and heart attack).

So, what are the real risks?

Some studies have suggested that smoking in the car can be as dangerous as driving using a mobile phone. A study of Italian teenagers found that being a smoker increased the risk of being in an accident by 3.2 times. A study in America found that smokers were 1.5 times more likely to be in a car crash, and a separate 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration titled The Impact of Driver Inattention on Near-Crash/Crash Risk found that the process of smoking in a car increased the crash risk by between 2-3 times.

There are the obvious physical health risks of smoking over a longer period of time, too. If you just can’t give up the ciggies, at least stop and have a break when you have one, and that way you’ll help keep yourself and other road users safer. But if you want to quit, you can get free help from Quitline on 0800 778 778 or visit www.quit.org.nz.

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Darren has written over 3000 articles about driving and vehicles, plus almost 500 vehicle reviews and numerous driving courses. Connect with him on LinkedIn by clicking the name above

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