TIRF poll: Distracted Driving More Than Just Cell Phones

OTTAWA, September 6, 2011 – A new Road Safety Monitor (RSM) poll by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) shows that a majority of Canadians continue to mainly associate distracted driving with cell phone use while continuing to engage in other distracting behaviours. The public opinion poll conducted in September 2010 investigated Canadians’ driving behaviours and perceptions of distracted driving.

When Canadians were asked what they associate with distracted driving, 72.2% of respondents first thought of cell phones. The other top five distractions mentioned include eating and drinking (4%), passengers (3.4%), other drivers on the road (2.9%), and changing the radio station or CDs (2.8%). For researchers this suggests that Canadians may not fully appreciate the complete spectrum of behaviours that are distracting to a driver.

“Distraction is a diversion of the driver’s attention from the driving task,” explains Robyn Robertson, lead researcher and President and CEO at TIRF. “This issue is much broader than just cell phones and includes distractions inside the vehicle such as eating, drinking, smoking, as well as distractions outside the vehicle such as looking at billboards, other drivers and scenery along the road.”

While less than 20% of drivers who responded admitted to using cell phones and other technical devices, many admitted to engaging in other distracting activities, such as talking or interacting with passengers (67%) and changing the radio stations or CDs while driving (45.8%). These numbers suggest that a large number of drivers engage in distracting behaviours and may not be aware that they are putting themselves, their passengers and other road users at risk.

Robertson clarifies that, “In reality, people cannot multi-task. While we may think that we’re multi-tasking our brains are actually switching back and forth between tasks, and the more we jump from one task to the other, the less we focus on each individual task.” This lack of attention can result in a slower reaction time and other driving errors which can lead to near misses and crashes.

According to poll results these near misses and crashes do happen. While few drivers admitted to being in a collision in the last year due to being distracted, (4.3% from a distraction outside their vehicle and 2.7% from a distraction inside their vehicle) more Canadians admitted to having to brake or steer to avoid a collision in the last month because of a distraction (27% and 13% respectively).

“The number of distracted driving related collisions in Canada is a frequent request for TIRF; however, this is still a relatively new issue and efforts are ongoing to strengthen data collection. Nevertheless, available research in the field generally supports the belief that driver distraction is a factor in 20% – 30% of road crashes”, notes Robertson. “More data collection and research on distracted driving-related collisions is needed to better understand the magnitude and characteristics of the distracted driving problem in Canada.”

Similar to previous RSM surveys, respondents were asked to rate their level of concern for various road safety issues. Of notable interest, for the first time ever, more Canadians considered texting while driving a very or extremely serious problem (90.2%), surpassing both concern about drinking drivers (84.5%) and young drinking drivers (83%).

“This indicates that Canadians certainly seem to be concerned about the issue of distracted driving, although they may not fully appreciate the scope of potential distractions, and, as a consequence, continue to engage in distracting behaviours,” explains Robertson.

As a reflection of this concern, 70% of respondents agreed that greater awareness and education efforts are needed to alert drivers to the problems of distracted driving. This would suggest that, in addition to strengthened driving laws, drivers would be receptive to a public education program aimed at educating them on all aspects of the distracted driving problem. For complete details on what Canadian jurisdictions are doing on the issue, visit the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators’ Working Group on distracted driving, www.ccmta.ca/english/committees/rsrp/strid-distraction/strid-distraction-reports.cfm.

“It is clear from this research that Canadians are concerned about distracted driving and they support countermeasures to reduce the problem. This level of interest provides a great opportunity to raise awareness about the many different types of distractions that exist and how drivers can avoid them,” notes Robertson. “Increasing public awareness and understanding of this issue is key.”

About the poll

These results are based on the RSM, an annual public opinion poll developed and conducted by TIRF. A total of 1,601 Canadians completed the poll in September and October of 2010. Results can be considered accurate within plus or minus 2.5%, 19 times out of 20. The majority of the questions were answered using a scale from one to six where six indicated high agreement, concern, or support and one indicated low agreement, concern or support. For the second time, some respondents were contacted by phone (401 in 2010; 600 in 2009) and some on-line (1,200 in 2010; 600 in 2009) as part of a gradual transition to an on-line survey. The poll results are accompanied by a literature review of the contemporary research on distracted driving.

About TIRF

Established in 1964, TIRF’s mission is to reduce traffic-related deaths and injuries. As a national, independent, charitable road safety institute, TIRF designs, promotes, and implements effective programs and policies, based on sound research. TIRF is a registered charity and depends on grants, contracts, and donations to provide services for the public. Visit us online at www.tirf.ca.