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The biggest driving distractions

Ideally, we should spend our time 100% focused on the road while driving, but that never happens because our brains develop efficient little subroutines that take care of the mundaneness. We then occupy ourselves with deliberate distractions, like singing to the radio, or we find ways to cope as best we can with other distractions.

In 2014, driver distraction was a contributing factor in 21 fatal crashes and 159serious injury crashes in New Zealand – it’s a serious problem!

Will technology make distractions while driving less relevant?

Three technologies are going to make it less dangerous to be distracted:

  1. Autonomous emergency braking: it’s where the car brakes for you because you didn’t react in time. It’s designed to be the last line of defence if you’re about to hit something.
  2. Forward collision warning: if you don’t have autonomous emergency braking, this is the next level down. It warns you if you should brake.
  3. Autonomous cars: where the car drives you.

Most new cars already have at least one of the first two, and autonomous driving is already here on high-end models. The problem is that the average age of a car in New Zealand is over 14 years!

But we are distracted when driving right now!

Here’s a list of common distractions you will almost certainly encounter when driving.

A 2001 study found the following percentages of distractions amongst drivers. While cellphone does make an appearance on the list it was only cited in 1.5% of the cases – this will probably be much higher now.

Specific Distraction: % of Drivers

  • Outside person, object or event: 29.4
  • Adjusting radio, cassette, CD: 11.4
  • Other occupants in vehicle: 10.9
  • Moving object in vehicle: 4.3
  • Other device/object brought into vehicle: 2.9
  • Adjusting vehicle/climate controls: 2.8
  • Eating or drinking: 1.7
  • Using/dialling cell phone: 1.5
  • Smoking-related: 0.9
  • Other distraction: 25.6
  • Unknown distraction: 8.6

More recent statistics from a HealthDay Poll in November 2011 of 2800 American adults look like this:

  • Approximately 86% of drivers have admitted to eating or drinking while driving.
  • Approximately 37% of drivers have texted while driving at least once, while 18% of drivers have said they have formed the habit of doing it often.
  • Approximately 41% of adult drivers have set or changed a GPS system while driving, and 21% do it “more frequently.”
  • Approximately 36% of adult drivers have used a map as road guidance while driving.
  • At least 1 out of every 5 drivers has admitted to combing or styling their hair while driving.
  • Approximately 14% of drivers have applied makeup while driving.
  • Approximately 13% of adult drivers have browsed the Internet while driving


If you can keep the child distracted, you can keep the child from distracting you, but therein lays the challenge. Children have notoriously short attention spans, and always seem to be needing to stop to go to the toilet.

It’s better to have someone else in the car with you to take on the role of keeping the kids occupied. Or encourage them to go to sleep. If they are OK reading or using an iPad or similar, let them do that. There is some evidence that if you tell a child not to read because it will make them travel sick that you then create this behaviour in them. Begin by telling them it’s OK to read, then take it easy in the corners so you don’t throw them about too much. How to drive with a baby.


A pet in the front seat has the potential to be a distraction. You should never ride with your dog or cat in your lap. They should be either in a proper pet enclosure (like a cat cage) or you can let them ride in the boot if you have a station wagon. Bear in mind that if you have to stop quickly, Fluffy will become a heavy, claw-equipped projectile in your car which could damage you and seriously injure or kill it. Pet stores sell various devices for restraining your pet in your car. Just remember to let your pet out frequently if you’re on a long journey. How to transport pets in your car.

Vehicle entertainment, climate and navigation

vw-golf-steering-wheel-buttonsListening to the radio itself doesn’t provide much of a distraction but changing the channel does because it’s likely you will have to take your eyes off the road. Newer cars have buttons on the steering wheel that allow you to keep your hands on the wheel while adjusting the volume or channel, like in the Volkswagen Golf GTI steering wheel on the left. In an older car make sure you tune your presets before setting off then you don’t need to play around with trying to find the right frequency.

Satellite navigation systems can provide a similar distraction. If you want to enter a destination, whether you have a built-in sat nav or an external third-party one either as a standalone unit or on your phone, get someone else in the car to do it, or pull over. Some built-in sat nat systems won’t let you enter or change your destination while the car is moving.

Adjusting the climate control is another distraction that may cause you to take your eyes off the road, especially in cars which have touchscreen controls which are less tactile.

Visual distractions

Road furniture’ is constantly vying for your attention. Road furniture (or street furniture in some countries) is the term that describes items such as fire hydrants, benches, road signs, traffic lights, street lamps, kerbstones and other items that form the road environment.

Road signs are instructional, however, some European and Scandinavian towns have dramatically reduced the number of signs and have found that people drive more carefully and the accident rate drops. By reducing the signs, people pay more attention to the road and drive to the conditions.

The other big distraction is advertising hoardings and billboards, from simple, scrawled signs advertising garage sales through to large billboards for major brands. The whole purpose of these signs is to distract you.

Governments are interested in reducing sign clutter and there are local bylaws that prevent some kinds of signs. The UK government has a PDF about reducing sign clutter that you can find here.


Drive-through food – it can be dangerous. It’s hot, you put it in your lap, and are we really designed to handle food and drive at the same time? Major culprits for causing accidents through distraction are hot fillings scalding the driver, or spilling liquids.

If you know you will want to eat on the journey pack food and drink that is convenient to eat with one hand – i.e. food that doesn’t need two hands to open or consume. Or, stop on the side of the road and take a break while eating as it’s more refreshing for your body.


Of course, it’s illegal in New Zealand to use a hand-held phone to make a call. It’s also illegal to send or read a text message while driving. This doesn’t stop the phone from being a distraction, though. Even if you are using a hands-free kit, talking on the phone makes you around 1.3 times more likely to crash. Texting makes you 23 times more likely to crash, and texting while driving kills 11 teens per day in the USA.

Being distracted is inevitable when driving. Many of these distractions won’t result in any problems, but you do put yourself at increased risk of having a collision, or at least a close call.

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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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