Now that I have your attention with this article’s title let me reiterate: The topic of distraction is riddled with myths. That’s right—at least in how we often address distracted driving—or don’t, depending on how susceptible we might be to those myths.
First, let’s clarify one thing: Distracted driving itself is a very real issue, one that contributes to more than 3,000 deaths in 2019 and 1,000 injuries per day in 2018 in the US alone, according to NHTSA. And let’s properly define it: The Oxford Dictionary lists distraction as “a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else.” When it comes to driving, that means anything from texting on your smartphone to zoning out in a daydream.
An overarching myth is the premise that if you just tell people not to be distracted while driving, that people will just accept and abide by it. Safety managers already know that’s not realistic, but nonetheless, we’re surrounded by many well-intentioned public-awareness campaigns declaring simplistic messages like “Distracted driving kills such-and-such people a year” or “Stay alive—don’t text and drive!” or “Just put down that phone!”
Everybody “knows” distracted driving is dangerous. If these campaigns really worked, we’d see the number of distracted drivers (especially on their handheld smartphones) going down, not up. Statements like these are reminders, but are they really effective?
Several long-held myths are working against us and causing complacency around distraction:
We’re switching back and forth between different tasks so quickly that it gives the illusion we’re multitasking well, but the truth is that it’s physically impossible (proved by neuroscience) to do this and give each activity our complete, undivided attention.
When we do other things behind the wheel besides driving, we cognitively overload ourselves enough to miss vital information that’s crucial for safety. Most of the time, the only reason we don’t get into crashes is because our timing is lucky or someone else is watching out for us and compensating for our temporary impairment.
When we do multitask behind the wheel, neuroscience research on driver cognitive workloads shows that we can’t instantly switch between two completely different tasks. In fact, with smartphone distraction, it can take up to 27 seconds for our minds to fully regain awareness of the external physical situation at hand. That’s why some places have laws that prohibit drivers from using smartphones while stopped at a traffic light; we just aren’t mentally tuned in to detecting hazardous situations during that transitional delay.
Air traffic controllers, airline pilots, and even submarine radar operators know this all too well: Their jobs require utter concentration, or else hundreds of people could lose their lives. Studies have shown that we get mentally drained by even just 20 or 30 minutes of actively monitoring situations, and, paradoxically, even more so when not much is going on; this phenomenon is called vigilance decrement.
We’re biologically programmed to be intensely social animals, and the “fear of missing out” once meant, from an evolutionary standpoint, the difference between getting killed by a predator and living to see another day with our tribe.
Today that no longer holds so true, but we’re still wired to respond—and to receive feel-good dopamine rewards in our brains when we do. We also experience gnawing anxiety if we know we’re getting messages we feel we need to respond to—and maybe professionally penalised for if we don’t acknowledge quickly enough.
This means that a compulsion to constantly check or respond to our electronic devices often isn’t a matter of willpower or a character flaw—it’s a biochemical response that’s deeply hard-wired in us. That’s why just telling people not to be on their phones while driving often doesn’t work; we need to tackle the root of the issue with compassionate behavioural change and positive social reinforcement, rather than only with negative threats and penalties.
The ultimate paradox is that it’s impossible for a good driver not to be distracted by something. Why? Because good driving requires that we constantly “scan and plan” for hazards, which change by the second. The trick is to harness our natural tendency for mind-wandering and apply it to the task of driving.
The other side of the distracted driving coin lies in becoming aware of just how difficult it is to drive safely in every situation, every single time. Most of us are simply not aware of the sheer range of potential hazards and what-if scenarios on the road, even on a quiet residential street—let alone how to recognise, anticipate, and plan for them in a methodical, consistently safe way.
Because the quality of driver training varies so much and is often mediocre at best, this deficiency is usually not our fault—we simply don’t know what we don’t know.
But without properly understanding just how complex the driving task is, we have no yardstick by which to measure how distraction truly takes away our ability to stay vigilant—especially when one has very little idea what to be vigilant about.
But isn’t driving easy, you say? After all, I get to where I need to go just fine, and I haven’t had a crash in years. That may technically be true, but a true measure of safety is how often you’ve been surprised by something, how many near-misses you had, or whether you made someone else unnecessarily slow, stop, or swerve. These unseen things often don’t cross people’s minds—or appear as collision reports—until it’s too late.
Proper hazard perception training can help drivers better understand just how distraction causes them to miss vital information and trigger devastating situations.
So, how do we address distraction honestly and effectively in your workplace driving safety culture?
Most importantly, don’t deny the issue of distraction. It’s absolutely inevitable that we’ll be distracted behind the wheel many times—it’s a natural part of how we operate. But instead of just telling people not to be distracted, acknowledge the issue honestly and equip them with realistic tools, mental techniques, and driving tips to help them deal with it constructively, rate their priorities, and handle tricky situations safely. Avoid the temptation to implement superficial or unrealistic policies. Reward people for single-tasking! Let them know that multitasking isn’t what they might think it is. Instituting a company culture that encourages them to practice staying focused on a single task at a time and delaying less mission-critical tasks (like answering texts or emails) can vastly improve not only their driving but also other kinds of workplace productivity. Tangible incentives, gamification points, and mini-competitions that reward not being distracted while driving can be powerful—and far more effective than messages, penalties, and threats. Acknowledge that driving safely for long periods can be cognitively difficult and build safety culture around that. Consider encouraging regular breaks, building more flexibility in scheduling work-related activities and meetings (so that workers don’t feel compelled to eat and drive at the same time, for instance), and not being penalised for delays. Debunk the notion that we can snap back to attention quickly. The neuroscience research on this subject is quite compelling; it can be one of the most persuasive arguments for having a zero-tolerance policy for smartphone use while driving. Provide the best-quality hazard perception driver training that your company can afford to demonstrate why being distracted is so risky. While this training can be expensive, it may be one of the single most valuable investments your company can make. The cost of a single collision insurance claim can easily exceed the cost of this training for multiple workers. Recognise that the driving task by itself can be very distracting. For instance, interpreting navigation instructions, operating a vehicle touchscreen, or driving in unfamiliar congested urban environments when one is fatigued or overscheduled can all greatly compromise safety. Proactively help your workers anticipate these situations by providing training and tips on how to prioritise the driving task when these operational issues arise. Help your workers understand the root of their compulsion to use their smartphones and offer support. A corporate policy of rewarding workers for not using their phones while driving and implementing automatic-response programs that ease the feeling of the urgency to respond can go a long way toward supporting a stronger safety culture. Encourage workers to use their wandering minds wisely. We might as well put our natural predilection for distraction to good use: With proper training in hazard perception, superior driving technique, and commentary driving, we can channel it for the right priorities. Make a game of “scanning and planning”!