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On The Road - Driving With Distractions

National Accident Helpline’s Start Safe, Stay Safe campaign takes a look at some of the common driving distractions and peer pressure a young or new driver may face today.

As any good driving instructor will tell you, it’s always important to keep your eyes on the road. Distractions while driving need to be kept to an absolute minimum, and this includes chatting to your mates in the passenger seats, noisy kids in the back seat or even playing loud music or driving fast when trying to impress a date.

Even the most innocuous of tasks can provide a dangerous distraction when you're behind the wheel, and a typical example is using your mobile phone. According to the Department for Transport [1], mobile phone usage can make you four times more likely to crash. It can take just a few seconds of not looking ahead for things to turn nasty, so even sending a quick text or checking your Facebook can result in a collision.


Brain Strain

A lot of people go into autopilot when they’re driving. It’s easy if you’re experienced to let muscle memory take over, and engage your brain in more interesting activities, such as chatting to your passengers or singing along to your favourite song. However, did you know that you use multiple parts of your brain simultaneously when you’re driving?

Some of the cerebral regions used when driving include:

The Frontal Lobe: essential for making judgements and being reactive, the Dorsal Lateral Prefrontal Cortex section is your key decision maker. According to a scientific study [2], this area of the brain doesn’t fully mature until around 20 years, which could account for some of the difficulties faced by young, new drivers.

Parietal Lobe: a handy system that stops your brain from being flooded with sensory information. It’s a neuro-filter of sorts, and helps with multi-tasking and spatial awareness.

Occipital Lobe: without this part of your brain you wouldn’t be able to see, and would therefore have trouble avoiding the many hazards you encounter on the road.

Temporal Lobe: this contains your Auditory Cortex, which allows you to hear and interpret sounds, like sirens and screeching tyres.

Cerebellum: meaning ‘little brain’ in Latin, this crucial area sits right above your spine. It’s responsible for balance and muscle movement – i.e. instructing your foot to press down on the brake pedal, or your hands to turn the steering wheel.

Once you realise the work that’s going into driving, you might not feel so confident flicking through your text messages or zoning out of the journey. Give your brain a helping hand and focus! [3]

Three golden tips to avoid peer pressure and distractions

Don’t drive to impress: Driving can make you feel pretty cool, but you’ll be putting yourself in danger if you don’t treat the road with the respect it deserves. It doesn't matter if you’re driving a Ferrari or a Ford Fiesta – showing off by hurtling along at high speeds or attempting to race with other drivers makes you look reckless and insecure. Not the best way to impress a date.

Saying “no” doesn’t have to be a big deal: Have your friends ever encouraged you to run through a red light or overtake a slow moving car on the wrong side of the road? What about speeding up outside of both the law and your comfort zone? When saying “no” to friends or someone you like, you may worry it will ruin the atmosphere. It doesn’t have to. Keep it casual, add humour to make your point or simply change the subject.

Avoid the worst: Giving into peer pressure or being distracted when behind the wheel can put you in a situation which you end up regretting. You may have a carefree attitude to your driving, but when it comes to mistakes on the road, the ramifications can be very serious, especially if you or your passengers sustain injuries. Think about the consequences when making decisions, and remember that a cringe moment is worth it to avoid potentially life-changing, painful repercussions, or even fatalities.

Five not so obvious driving distractions

1. Being Intimate
Trying to lean over for a kiss, gazing into your date’s eyes or holding your partner’s hand while driving are all distractions even if there seem to be no risks ahead. Remember, it doesn’t take long for driving conditions to change, and getting close is best enjoyed when your car engine is off.

2. Pets
Travelling with beloved pets, no matter how well behaved they usually are, can be a distraction. Some animals feel stressed or needy when they’re cooped up in a car, and if they’re not properly secured their unrestricted movement can have an impact on your focus. A seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or guard are all ways of safely restraining animals in cars.

3. Daydreaming
This doesn’t always mean pondering over philosophical thoughts. Whether you’re running late for work and imagining what your boss will say, going over a recent argument or fantasising about your favourite film star, falling deep into thought could mean you’re less aware of the risks around you and unable to react fast enough, should you need to.

4. Looking for lost items
It may be that your mobile has gone AWOL, or you’re not sure whether your debit card is in your wallet. Instead of attempting to look for these while driving, stay calm, safely pull over and have a good rummage. Losing items is not only frustrating but finding them can be time-consuming which won’t help your concentration levels when driving.

5. Applying makeup/grooming
You use your mirrors a lot when driving to move off, change direction, overtake and more. However, using those mirrors to apply makeup or hair gel isn’t the hallmark of a good driver. Not focusing on the road could mean you end up hurting yourself and someone else in the process.

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Music Dangers

Music is another common driving distraction that can compromise safety. Our On the Road safety campaign survey run in association with the Driving Instructors Association and the road safety charity Brake, found that 66% of 17-24 years old believed that listening to loud music was a major distraction to young drivers. Chatting to other passengers was also identified as diverting focus away from the road by 53% of respondents.

Other studies have shown that listening to music, despite being one of the more fun aspects of driving, can also be one of the most dangerous.

Back in 2001, a team at Newfoundland’s Memorial University found that it takes people 20% longer to do mental and physical tasks when loud music is playing, something that would have a direct impact on a driver’s reaction time.

Twelve years later an Israeli university [4] conducted a study where teenage drivers were allowed to listen to their favourite songs at loud volume while driving. They found that 98% of them made an average of three mistakes during the journey, and that 32% had to be issued a verbal safety warning or command to avoid injury.

As tempting as it is to listen to loud, bass-heavy tunes while cruising, it might be better to wait until you’re more experienced. Choose a relaxing playlist that provides more of a background atmosphere rather than a song that turns your car into a karaoke palace.

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If you have any further thoughts on driving distractions, we’d love to hear from you. Tweet us @NatAccHelpline and share your stories with us.

Remember, if you suffered an injury from a road traffic accident that wasn’t your fault, you could be entitled to compensation. Get in touch and we can help you through the first steps of your personal injury claim.