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Distracted driving: what it is and how to avoid it

​​​​​​​Most of us take driving for granted, often going through the motions without giving it much thought – almost as though we're on autopilot.


The reality is that driving is a demanding task that can suddenly require all your attention if a hazard arises. If you're distracted, you’ll be slower to react – a delay that could prove fatal.

What is distracted driving?

Distracted driving is driving while doing any activity that diverts attention from the job at hand. This includes everything from fiddling with your car radio to talking to a passenger – anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.

The rise of the mobile phone has put the spotlight on driver distraction like never before, but other forms of driver multi-tasking can be just as dangerous.

According to road safety charity, Brake, there were 1,445 fatal crashes in Britain in 2016 that resulted in one or more deaths. Of those, the police recorded 397 incidences with the contributory factor of “failure to look” and a further 140 incidences where contributory factors were in-vehicle distractions, phone use and distractions outside the vehicle.

What the law says

You can get six penalty points and a £200 fine if you’re caught using a hand-held mobile phone while driving. Mobile phone use in cars is even more serious for new drivers. A conviction means they’d lose their licence, because they’re only allowed to clock up six penalty points in their first two years of driving, rather than the normal 12.

The mobile phone law also applies to texting while driving, so it’s as simple as this – mobile phones and driving are completely forbidden and you should never be tempted.

In the most serious cases of driving while distracted it can even result in the criminal offence of driving without due care and attention – also known as careless driving. This is defined as:

1. Driving that falls below the standard expected of a competent driver
2. Driving that doesn’t show reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or pathways

It covers a number of things including:

  • Excessive speed
  • Tiredness
  • Driving inappropriately close to another vehicle
  • Overtaking on the inside

Driving without due care and attention carries a penalty of either a disqualification, or between three and nine points. You can also be fined up to £2,500 depending on the nature of the incident, but basically, the worse the driving, the worse the penalty will be.

Most common driving distractions

Research published in 2018 found that four out of five of the 1,500 drivers surveyed are distracted when behind the wheel. The survey, which was carried out by used car supermarket, The Car People, also exposed the top distractions for both men and women.

The most distracting things for male drivers behind the wheel are:

1. Mobile phones (37%)
2. Talking to passengers (27%)
3. Changing the car radio (25%)
4. Using vehicle controls, eg air con (21%)
5. Seeing an attractive pedestrian (19%)

The most distracting things for female drivers behind the wheel are:

1. Mobile phones (37%)
2. Talking to passengers (30%)
3. Children fighting (26%)
4. Watching the driver in the mirror behind you (25%)
5. Listening to directions from sat-nav (23%)

Other common distractions while driving include:

  • Arguing with a partner
  • Eating
  • Drinking
  • Daydreaming
  • Back-seat drivers
  • Pets
  • Babies
  • Listening to music
  • Smoking/vaping

Tips for avoiding distracted driving

Some level of distraction while driving is unavoidable, but you can take some simple steps to avoid becoming distracted

  • Concentrate on your driving. This may sound obvious, but it's easy to lose your focus
  • As a general rule, if you need to do something distracting while driving, find a safe place to pull over
  • Keep your mobile phone out of sight and put it in silent mode. That way you're not tempted to look at it if you receive a call or text
  • Allow plenty of time to study your route before setting off. That way there's no need to fiddle with a sat-nav on the move
  • Avoid eating and drinking while driving. If you are hungry or thirsty, find a safe place to pull over
  • Don’t be afraid to tell your passengers to stop talking and/or behave themselves if you feel that they are distracting you
  • If you starting to feel drowsy, stop in a safe place (not a motorway hard shoulder) and take a break
  • If you stop off because you're feeling tired, drinking coffee or an equivalent caffeinated drink will help, as will a short nap of around 15-20 minutes
  • Read our essential advice for travelling with children

I'm an experienced journalist, digital editor and copywriter, now specialising in motoring. I’m editor of Automotive Blog and have worked across the media in newspapers, magazines, TV, teletext, radio and online for household names including the BBC, GMTV, ITV and MSN. I’ve produced digital content in the financial sector for Lloyds Bank, Nationwide and the Money Advice Service. I'm married with two children and live near Bath in Somerset.

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