Driving distraction away

By Ray Prest

Ray Prest is director of marketing with SafeStart, which offers workplace safety training programs designed to reduce human error. SafeStart is headquartered in Belleville, ON and provides training worldwide. Prest can be reached at [email protected]


Driving without awareness used to be called “highway hypnosis” or “white line fever” for the way people zone out or forget long stretches of a trip as if hypnotized. We now know this trance-like state is actually a reduction in awareness.

In some parts of Canada, the number of distracted driving fatalities has now surpassed the number of impaired (drunk or drugged) driving fatalities. That statement from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation says it all. The frequency and potential severity of vehicle collisions places driving in the worst corner of any risk matrix. Add distraction to the mix and driving becomes the riskiest thing we do every day.

The real issue isn’t what causes distraction, it’s that distraction compromises our decision-making ability and leads to mental lapses.



A good working definition of driver distraction is “an internal or external factor that takes your eyes or mind away from the road.” In short, it’s anything that takes your focus away from driving. Driving-related distraction can be organized in two groups:

  1. Conscious distraction. Decisions we make, like reaching for a cellphone or tuning the radio.
  1. Unintentional distraction. Mental lapses that nobody intends to make, such as falling asleep at the wheel or letting their mind wander at a crucial moment.


Why you should care about distracted driving

Everyone drives or rides in a vehicle. And that means distracted driving affects every single business in the world. Because no matter where a crash occurs − at work or off the job − it can affect drivers, passengers and pedestrians for weeks and months afterwards. And employers pay the price in lost productivity, reduced morale, and injuries to workers … or worse.

Beyond driving, distraction can still lead to costly outcomes, whether it’s rushing down stairs or taking focus away from power tools or other hazards. If you want to keep your people and profits safe you need to see distracted driving as a problem that goes way beyond the workplace.



Most anti-distraction campaigns feature someone texting from behind the wheel. But data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System suggests cellphone use is responsible for only 12 per cent of fatalities caused by distracted driving.

It isn’t a cellphone issue. It’s not even a driving issue, really. A person’s state of mind makes them vulnerable to distraction, and that can lead to poor decisions, mental lapses and a whole bunch of errors.

The end result is taking eyes and mind off the task at hand.

Distraction comes in many forms:

  • the radio, car controls, GPS, looking at street signs, passengers, and unexpected moving objects
  • talking with someone else, listening to music, looking at a map
  • smoking, eating and drinking
  • a wandering mind or being lost in thought

These four sources aren’t enough to lead to distraction on their own. What causes you to become distracted by these things sometimes?

A person’s state of mind can make them more vulnerable to the sources of distracted driving:

  • When we are rushing, we are more likely to think about why we are in a rush than to concentrate on driving.
  • When we are frustrated, we are more likely to get distracted by something we see.
  • When we are tired, we are less likely to maintain focus when we hear something unexpected.

Perhaps the most dangerous cause of distraction is familiarity with the risk. People take unnecessary risks behind the wheel because they forget driving is incredibly dangerous. In a word, they become complacent.

Multitasking is a myth. When we “multitask” the brain actually switches rapidly back
and forth between the two tasks. That requires a lot of mental work. And even basic,
attentive driving requires numerous different tasks, from steering to monitoring speed to thinking about safe braking distances and looking out for pedestrians and other vehicles.


Eyes on task, complacency and driving without awareness-Codes vary by province

We’ve all had a feeling of being on autopilot during a drive − our bodies react automatically to external events (such as changing lanes when there’s a slow car ahead) but our minds don’t quite register it. These types of drives feel like they go by in a blur.

This is called driving without awareness and it shows the problem with saying, “Keep your eyes on the road.” Just because something is in front of you doesn’t mean you see it.

Studies and common sense both suggest that as attention goes down, the chances of a car crash go up. It takes having your eyes and your mind on task to fight off the inattention and complacency that can settle in during a long drive. And that takes skills and practice.


Distracted driving is the result of human error

The pattern of distraction has a lot of steps: the states of mind that make people susceptible to distraction, the sources of distraction, the errors we make when we’re distracted.

But we can condense the entire pattern into two words: human error. Cars and other machinery don’t lose focus. Humans do. And when our attention wanders, people get hurt. Any solution to distraction needs to be as comprehensive as the problem.


Keeping workers’ eyes and mind on the task at hand

We talked about how “a person’s state of mind can make them more vulnerable to distraction.” Fortunately, a person’s state of mind can make them more resistant to distraction too.

There are three crucial elements to keeping workers’ eyes and minds on the task at hand: knowledge of the problem, the skills to fight distraction, and reinforcement to build strong habits and keep skills and knowledge sharp.

The quickest and most effective way to learn and retain all three elements is to introduce training that provides personal safety and awareness skills as part of your safety program.



Employees need to understand distraction in practical terms. How does it affect them? What can they do about it? Here are a few ways to help them better grasp the problem and to truly believe in the risk of distraction:

  1. Share the alarming stats, scope of the problem and root causes of distraction.
  1. Share a personal story of your own about how distraction caused a close call so they can see that anyone is susceptible to distraction-related risk.
  1. Ask workers to share a story about when they were driving and had a close call because they momentarily let their eyes or mind drift. This will remind them of how personally susceptible they are to distraction.
  1. Disrupt their complacency with the risk. This is especially necessary for activities where the risk and familiarity with the hazard are both high. Get workers to talk about how they would explain the danger level to someone else such as their children.
  1. Encourage workers to explain the distraction pattern in their own words. Quiz people on which state of mind (rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency) or which source of distraction (visual, auditory, manual and cognitive) they think is most likely to cause them problems.

Knowing is half the battle. The other half is the ability to act on that knowledge. Provide workers with the personal skills and reinforcement needed to defeat distraction.


Awareness Skills

There is always some sort of distraction nearby. People need the skills to maintain focus when the risk of distraction is compounded by their state of mind (rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency) and amount of hazardous energy (walking versus driving).

People can recognize the physical symptoms of these states fairly easily:

  • increased heart rate and feeling frantic = rushing
  • feeling flushed or like your “blood is boiling” = frustration
  • yawning, dragging feet, or feeling lethargic = fatigued

But few people are able to take effective action when they notice these signs. That’s because most of us focus more on the problem than on how to deal with it.

Complacency is also a factor. Someone might notice they’re tired and, even though they know there’s an increased risk they’ll fall asleep, they choose to drive anyway because they’ve done it numerous times before without incident. Workers need the skills to recognize when they’re rushing or fatigued and they also have to know what to do about it.

Skills in Action

Discuss how to respond in certain situations by using “if-then” scenarios. This type of verbal planning is an easy and effective way to prepare employees for dealing with these states when they occur.

Ask employees which state they might encounter and ask them to explain what they’ll do to reduce it. Examples include:

  • “If I notice I’m rushing to get somewhere then I’ll think to myself that it’s not worth the extra risk, and go at a normal pace.”
  • “If I start to feel frustrated with other drivers then I’ll take a deep breath and try to cool off.”
  • “If I catch myself yawning then I’ll remind myself to stay extra-focused and not take any extra risks to compensate for my fatigue.”

The signs of complacency can be harder to recognize in the moment. It is especially important to reinforce the knowledge, habits and rules that reduce the risk of mental lapses and poor decisions through repetition and motivation.