5 Causes of Distractions and 4 Solutions to Prevent Recurrence

Sarah Wrenn



Admit it – you’ve checked your phone while driving

We’ve likely all been guilty of it at some point. And despite knowing that we’re not supposed to do it – it’s against the law in most states and we understand that the distraction increases our risk of having an accident – we still do it. Why?

Let’s take a look at what causes operator distractions. We’ll use an example of operating a vehicle for our discussion, but it’s important to note that the distractions while driving are quite similar to the distractions we face while performing all sorts of tasks.

5 Causes for Operator Distractions

  1. Visual – Taking your eyes off the road (task):  So this is the easy one. Most people recognize that when something piques your interest and you look away from the task – you’re distracted.

  2. Manual – Taking your hands off the wheel (controls):  Similarly, most people recognize that taking your hands off the wheel while driving is a risky behavior and means you’re distracted.

  3. Cognitive – Taking your mind off the task:  But here’s the tricky one. Cognitive distractions are less tangible and therefore more difficult to define. Research and studies generally define cognitive distractions as when an individual’s attention is divided between two or more tasks. Since it’s more difficult to define, let’s see what researchers have said about this type of distraction.

    The AAA Foundation released a 2013 study “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile.” The study rates various tasks such as using a hands-free cell phone and listening to the radio according to the amount of cognitive workload imposed upon an operator. The study concludes:

    “While some tasks, like listening to the radio, are not very distracting, others – such as maintaining phone conversations and interacting with speech-to-text systems – place a high cognitive demand on drivers and degrade performance and brain activity necessary for safe driving.”

    Let’s start with a quiz to test your knowledge of types of cognitive distractions.

    Quiz #1: True or False? Multi-tasking is a myth.

    If you answered true, you are correct. Neuroscientists have studied the brain’s functions to determine that for certain types of activities multi-tasking is not only difficult, but impossible. For example, tasks such as navigation and speech require the use of the same circuits within the brain. As such, the brain cannot do both tasks at once. Instead, the brain is switching between these tasks, resulting in reduced focus on the primary task (driving) while attempting to perform a secondary task (speaking).

  4. Duration – The length of time that you’re distracted: Let’s test your knowledge about risks of distractions again.
    Quiz #2: What is riskier? Taking your eyes off the road to dial a phone number or using a hands-free device to have a long phone conversation with an old friend.

    Surprisingly, they’re about the same. Most people will say that the taking your eyes off the road is riskier, but the duration of the call causes that cognitive type of distraction we talked about earlier. So even though your eyes remain on the road and your hands stay on the wheel, the duration of time that the brain is disengaged from driving (the task) is longer.

  5. Compelled to check – You’re unable to ignore the distraction:

    One might think there’s an easy solution here, such as –

    Just ignore the distraction!”

    But that’s easier said than done and here are three reasons why:

    Brains desire social interaction: Dr. Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas puts it best:

    “There is nothing more interesting to the human brain than other people. I don’t care how you design your vehicle or your roadways, if you have technologies in the vehicle that allow you to be social, your brain will not be able to ignore them. There are only two things we love, serotonin and dopamine, the two reward chemicals; that come along with all those other things that make us feel good. There is really nothing more rewarding to us than the opportunity to talk to someone else.”  

    People are addicted to it: Surveys performed by various organizations have revealed a large percentage of people – sometimes 75% – that will admit to being distracted while driving. Meanwhile, a staggering percent – upwards of 90% – will rationalize the behavior which is a sign of addiction.

    Don’t tell them, but your teenager’s brain is not fully developed: The part of the brain (the frontal cortex) which makes decisions, navigates, and forms speech is underdeveloped in teenagers. This part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until the late teens or early 20s. It is, however, important to note that this is not just an issue for teens, this is an issue that crosses all demographics. Level of brain development is just one factor.

4 Solutions to Prevent Recurrence

Is it hopeless? No, but there will always be risk of operators being distracted. That’s why we need to identify different types of solutions that will reach different people on different levels.

  1. Raise awareness: Programs like EndDD.org and stopdistractions.org are focused on bringing awareness, education, and training to youth and adults about the risks of operating vehicles while distracted. 
  2. Use technology: Technology can also be used in a variety of ways to reduce the risk of these types of accidents. Sensors can be built into vehicles to identify distractions and provide alerts to drivers.
  3. Use more technology: Apps can be used to disable functions of technology so the receipt of calls and texts are delayed.
  4. Change the rules: Establishing policies and laws that are realistic and enforceable so that individuals are held accountable for risky behaviors before an accident occurs.

No single solution is going to reach everyone and no single solution is going to eliminate the risk of deadly accidents. Each one of these solutions has limitations individually, but as a system of solutions they have advantages. With a balanced approach to raise awareness and education, provide resources and tools to drivers, and change the culture of what is acceptable while driving, we can reduce accidents and save lives.

 I’ll leave you with one more thought.

“New technologies are connecting us as never before – to information, to entertainment, and to each other. But when those technologies compete for our attention while we’re behind the wheel of a car or at the controls of other vehicles, the results can be deadly.” - National Transportation Safety Board Member Robert Sumwalt

 Inspiration and information for this blog came from:

NTSB Roundtable: Disconnect from Deadly Distractionsheld March 31, 2015, from 9:00 a.m.– 4:00 p.m.,

AAA Foundation: Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile, June 2013;

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