What is phone distraction?
Even if you’ve never use your phone while driving you’ve probably seen drivers around you coasting down the road with their eyes fixed on a phone. Although this is obviously the most high risk form of phone use while driving, there are other forms of phone distraction that are not as obvious while still being dangerous.
The full range of phone distraction behaviours include:
- sending or receiving a text message
- reading content on a phone screen
- interacting with a phone’s apps
- taking photographs
- making or receiving calls (including calls taken while using a handsfree set).
Why phone distraction is dangerous
Phone use while driving is dangerous for two reasons.
The first and most obvious reason is that it is physically distracting. Interacting with a phone while driving typically requires a driver to take one hand off the car’s controls while also taking their eyes off the road. This simultaneously reduces drivers’ control over their vehicle and the amount of attention they are paying to what is happening on the road in front of them.
Drivers who use mobile phones will typically shift their attention back and forth between the road and mobile device. This may be sufficient to convince the driver that they’re paying attention to the road, but will nevertheless cause them to drive blind for surprisingly large distances. For example a person who looks at their phone for one second while driving 90 km/h will travel 25 meters – a quarter of the length of a football pitch.
Mobile phone interaction has a particularly big impact on peripheral awareness. One study conducted by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology indicated that mobile phone usage while driving can increase reaction time to hazards that originate in the distracted driver’s peripheral vision by 50%. To put this in context, a study by the University of Texas at San Antonio claimed that drunk driving increases reaction time by a relatively modest 15% – 25%.
While the risks of physical distraction should be fairly obvious, the impact of phone use on cognitive function while driving is easier to underestimate.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that any form of phone use, including holding a conversation on a mobile phone, impairs the cognitive processes required to drive safely. The more complex the road and traffic conditions the more drivers’ cognitive ability will be impaired if they are required to simultaneously engage in a conversation or interact with a phone.
Not only does active mobile phone use impair cognitive performance, but it also has an effect on a driver after they have disengaged from their phone. A study by the University of Utah shed light on this by analysing the cognitive impact of voice-activated systems in cars. The researchers found that complex interactions distract drivers for up to 27 seconds after they end, while less complex ones can still distract a driver for up to 15 seconds after disengaging.
Drivers are not the only road users placed at increased risk of severe accidents while using mobile devices. Phone use can also have a major impact on pedestrian behaviour. Besides taking their eyes off the road and the potential hazards it presents, pedestrians using mobile phones experience the same narrowing of peripheral vision as drivers. This makes them more vulnerable to being struck by oncoming vehicles while crossing roads.
The deadly effects of phone distraction
The cumulative effects of cognitive and physical distraction can be deadly.
The Canadian Automobile Association reports that drivers engaged in visual manual interactions (texting) are eight times more likely to be involved in a crash while the Queensland Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety claims that risk of an accident increases fourfold for any type of mobile phone use. One study found that 2 seconds of distraction doubles your odds of crashing.
While this sort of information quantifies the more obvious dangers of mobile phone distraction, there are other consequences of distracted driving that are not as obvious.
Reduced reaction time doesn’t just mean the risk of crashing is increased. It also means that drivers have less time, if any, to brake when a collision is imminent. This in turns means that their speed at impact will be relatively higher than if they had reacted more quickly. And a higher speed at impact significantly increases the risk of serious injury or death (see our article on speeding for more information).
Phone distraction fatality statistics in Australia
Because phone distraction is an evolving danger on Australian roads and has attracted the attention of state governments relatively recently, phone distraction fatality statistics in Australia are patchy.
However, using data reported by Queensland and Western Australia provides insight into recent mortality trends for fatal accidents attributed to all forms of inattention while driving.
These statistics show that while fatal accidents caused by inattention currently comprise a relatively small portion of the annual road toll in Queensland and Western Australia, they are increasing rapidly. In fact the number of deaths from inattention related accidents for the most recent year of data for both states was approximately double that of the average for the previous five years.
What this means for you
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that around 42% of all Australians have reported using mobile phones while driving. This despite the fact that the majority of Australians are apparently well aware of the dangers of phone use while driving.
The best way to reduce your risk of involvement in a distraction related accident is to apply your knowledge of the risks involved and avoid any interaction with your mobile phone while you are driving. Save interactions with your phone for moments when your car is parked and not obstructing traffic. Avoid taking or making calls using handsfree systems, particularly when driving in demanding traffic or road conditions. There are also several mobile apps that exist which can help with decreasing phone distractions.
You’ll also need to develop defensive driving skills to protect yourself against the behaviour of other road users who are using mobile phones. Extend your following distance behind cars where the driver appears distracted, and always check oncoming traffic lanes at intersections to ensure approaching cars are decelerating, even if you have right of way.
Responsible use of mobile phones while driving can make you a safer, more attentive driver, and help you to avoid becoming a victim of the inattention of other road users.
UbiCar is a mobile telematics app that tracks and scores driving behaviours such as mobile phone use, braking, cornering, acceleration and speeding and rewards safe drivers.
Get fairer car insurance. Based on how you drive
1. Crossover trim
Don’t have the money to buy yourself a 4×4? Don’t worry, auto manufacturers can help you dress up your car so that the average person won’t be able to tell the difference. You can elevate your suspension, get faux roof racks fitted, put mud guards over your tyres and do all sorts of other things that will do little to compensate for the fact that your car is, in fact, a front wheel drive with a one litre engine. If you’re offered this kind of trim, turn it down. It costs money, accomplishes nothing and adds little, if any, resale value to your car.
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Racing trim can include anything from rear spoilers to custom sports rims on your car. While this kind of trim can make your car look like a mean machine, it’s once again about style rather than substance. And to make matters worse, the more of this stuff you add the more the pool of potential buyers dwindles. When it comes to racing trim remember that less is more, and that whatever you invest in it won’t be returned when you sell the car.
3. Tinted windows
Nothing says ‘I’m definitely not trying to sell crystal meth’ to the local constabulary like heavily tinted windows. Unless you have some practical, pressing need to make yourself invisible while behind the wheel, and don’t mind being pulled over more frequently than more transparent drivers, skip the dark tints. Dark tints not only don’t add value to your car, they can actually make it difficult to sell for its book value in future.
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If you feel the need to share your favourite track with everyone in a five block radius, then chances are you’ll want to get your car a supercharged sound system. The problem with these systems is they can cost a fortune but have little impact on your car’s value. However, if you do want to jack up your sound system, go with the manufacturer options. Highly customized sound systems can interfere with your car’s factory systems and settings and lower its resale value.
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Keyless systems are finding their way into an ever-increasing number of cars, and are typically offered as an optional add-on when buyers are customizing new cars prior to purchase. This type of convenience says ‘premium’ but will save you about five calories of effort every day. And when the time comes to sell your car, the person you’re thinking of selling it to probably won’t see freedom from the tyranny of keys as any sort of meaningful benefit and is unlikely to pay extra for it.
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7. Out-of-league trim
There’s a certain logic to buying an entry level, cheap vehicle and then attempting to convert it into a luxury vehicle by adding leather seats, electric windows, a sunroof and larger wheels. This can provide you with a more pleasurable driving experience, but the only effect it’s likely to have on the car’s book value is to decrease it. That’s because the greater the deviation from the factory standard, the less likely someone is to buy your car, even if it has plush finishes. Conversely, and unfairly, if you buy a luxury car without many of these features, it’s likely to lose resale value.
8. Telematics tracking devices
You may decide to install a telematics tracking device in your car to ensure it can be tracked in the event of vehicle theft, or used to generate lower insurance premiums. While these are good reasons to use tracking technology, just bear in mind that you’ll absorb the costs associated with this, as telematics devices add no value to your car in the resale market.
Instead consider that there are also solutions on the market that turn your smartphone into a powerful telematics device for free.