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Distracted Driving More Common Than Ever: Are We Complacent to the Risks?

Close-up of woman talking on mobile phone while driving a car.

Distracted driving is one of the most stubborn safety concerns in North America. Despite decades of increasingly alarming data about the levels of distractions on our roads, the problem continues to afflict drivers everywhere.

In the United States, over 3,000 people are killed every year in car collisions caused by distracted driving. The problem isn’t restricted to fatal incidents, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in 2021 alone there were almost 250,000 crashes that were affected by distraction and resulted in someone getting hurt, accounting for 14% of all vehicular incidents leading to injury that year.

The problem isn’t confined to the U.S.—in Canada, data collected from the Road Safety Monitor and Canada’s National Fatality Database, which is run by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, revealed that distraction is becoming a bigger safety concern with every passing year. Rates of texting behind the wheel have increased by 102% over the past decade, as one of numerous examples. That same study noted that “In North America, distraction is estimated to be a factor in approximately 20%–30% of motor-vehicle collisions.”

Early attempts to curb the issue concentrated on legislative attempts to regulate the problem. But as this guide on distracted driving points out, these efforts have failed to stop the rates of distracted driving-related incidents from climbing. It’s clear that intervention is required, as distracted driving isn’t going to go away on its own. And in order to be effective, distracted driving interventions should focus on adjusting behaviors and re-calibrating driver risk perception, rather than establishing additional rules or punishments.

One viable model for effective interventions is the Drop It and Drive (DIAD) campaign. Run by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, the campaign aims to reduce distraction-involved incidents on the road by conducting seminars that are “thought-provoking and interactive, using science and real stories to engage communities in practicing safer road behaviours.” As we’ll see, this approach can help safety professionals overcome many of the obstacles relating to distracted driving, beginning with complacency.

One of the major challenges of any driving-related intervention is the need to contend with high levels of complacency among road users. Driving is an incredibly familiar task, with many drivers getting behind the wheel on a daily basis. As veteran safety consultant Danny Smith argues, constant exposure to driving can lead to people tuning out on the risk involved in the task of operating a vehicle. In his article Distracted to Death, Smith writes:

“Our brains are simply not wired to be constantly on high alert. We don’t need to delve too deeply into neuroscience to know that everyone’s mind prioritizes what to focus on and then relegates certain routine tasks to our subconscious mind. This leaves our conscious mind to deal with the situation or the crisis at hand. That’s why we can do things like drive home from work without thinking. We’ve driven the route so many times that our subconscious mind takes over and guides us through the motions.”

This complacency is compounded when cellphones are involved. In almost every single context, people are able to check their phones without posing any serious risk to themselves or others. As a result, the habit of using a phone—whether it’s to talk or text or for some other purpose – becomes second nature, making it easier to disregard how dangerous it can be to do while driving.

This is where DIAD’s two-pronged approach to disrupting complacency is useful. The first, to be thought-provoking, is a general best practice in any situation when complacency is involved. The second, to use science to engage communities in safer driving practices, can demonstrate to people the extent to which they’re influenced by complacency. Complacency can be one of the hardest human factors to explain to people, which makes DIAD’s disrupt-and-demonstrate approach a decent example for other interventions.

The same can be said for DIAD’s use of interactive teaching and storytelling. According to Pandora Bryce, SafeStart’s Vice-President of Product Development and an experienced researcher in adult safety learning design, using interactive elements in educational sessions can dramatically improve knowledge retention rates. This is especially true if there are a variety of interactive elements that, as Bryce says, fill “the need for workers to demonstrate safety learning in a number of different ways.” The goal is to offer meaningful avenues for adult learners to demonstrate what they’ve just learned in multiple ways, making the knowledge ‘stickier’ as a result.

One last technique worth adopting from DIAD is the effort they spend making their interventions context-specific. The Traffic Injury Research Foundation notes that DIAD seminars “are customized to the environment, features and context” of each specific workplace. This should be a key feature of any safety training, but it’s often overlooked. Even small safety interventions like construction toolbox talks can be made more effective if they’re geared toward the specific hazards, tools, and worksite features that workers are likely to encounter. For an intervention on an issue as important as distracted driving, it can be literally life-saving.

There is no silver bullet that can make distracted driving disappear from your workplace. But there are steps you can take to conduct a persuasive, behavior-influencing intervention that can make employees safer every time they put a key in the ignition.

Taking a cue from the DIAD campaign, focus on dealing with the complacency that affects all drivers. (It’s worth noting that human factors training is often the quickest way to initially disrupt complacency while also giving workers the skills they need to avoid becoming overly complacent over the long term.) If possible, also consider offering an interactive session that delivers powerful stories and provides ample time for workers to engage with the practical realities of distraction. When you combine all these elements, you’ll have a decent roadmap to help you mitigate the effects of distracted driving in the workplace and beyond.

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