Distraction – it comes down to culture


How many drivers really understand distraction? Why it matters? Think distraction just relates to the ‘illegal’ use of a cell phone whilst driving? My employer supplies a car, and cradle so surely, I can use it anywhere, anytime? The list goes on…


Distraction is such a complex issue that many road users often underestimate consequently putting both them and others at risk when driving. For many drivers, the main issue is it often relates to tasks drivers have done a hundred, if not thousands of times previously without incident. As a result, a degree of complacency flows into the driver and risk-taking thresholds can be pushed.


The other issue is the human brain struggles to multi-task, it just can’t. The amount it can process is fixed, like home broadband bandwidth, the more devices which connect to it, the more the system slows. Now apply that thinking to driving. It’s already a complicated task. The more distractions behind the wheel and the ability to focus and react to the driving task degrades.


This is why when on the one thousand and first distraction, there is suddenly a crash. Something in the driving environment is slightly different. It could be wet conditions, driving a bit faster, another road user suddenly brakes, a pedestrian crossing the road, cyclist, etc. The driver’s reflexes are delayed and what would have been a near miss normally is now a disaster.


For most drivers the disaster never occurs. The near-miss slides by unheeded and they continue on with their entrenched distracted habits but for those few where it does result in a crash, everything is now different.


For example, a piece of highway travelled many times, a car is broken down and the driver is fixing a tyre. Another road user just doesn’t see the stopped car, they’re distracted, the focus is on the phone and not the road. The result, life-changing. Lives lost and families shattered. All changed in the blink of an eye.


It is those few moments where the road safety system fails, that costs a life. A distracted driver increases the risk of such an event to occur.


What about the person who ‘called’ the driver and distracted them resulting in the crash? They no doubt heard it occur and now have to live with what their call created. Imagine if that caller had been a fellow worker, where is the line in the sand for duty of care?


Another, often overlooked contributing factor towards distraction, is fatigue. When combined the risk for a crash increases further. Think about it, when you start out on a journey the mind is sharp. Then as the trip drags on and there have been no rests to break it up, those small easy-going distractions – changing music, reaching for a snack, extended daydreaming – become more commonplace and take more effort to accomplish.


Once again, all it takes for one of those distraction events and when everything lines up, the system fails and a crash occurs.


Some companies may just ban the use of a cell phone while driving. Tick job is done. Distraction managed.


But a more mature organisation will be considering the worker holistically and distraction is one of many elements that are actively managed and mitigated when they are on the road. An engaged worker will buy into road safety because it is part of the safety culture of the organisation. They see their leadership walking the talk. A tick and flick organisation will see workers try to get around that ban or transfer the behaviour to the commute home when not on the work clock, but the risk is all the same.


The other complexity for an organisation is fitness to drive in relation to what is going on in the driver’s life before hitting the road. A solo driver has the chance to mull and stew on an issue or whilst on the road may be exposed to stress issues. An emotional driver is 10x more likely to have crash. There is no silver bullet for distraction but a systems-based approach built around a strong safety culture.


How is distraction approached in your organisation? A simple measure may be when your worker calls someone and they suspect that person is driving, do they ask? If confirmed, do they then say they will call back later when safer? The final part is, does that caller understand why that policy exists?


Road safety is a shared responsibility and an organisation can exert a lot of influence to protect their workers, their clients and the broader community. Is distraction even on the radar?


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