Varadkar addresses road safety conference on driver distraction

Minister Varadkar and Gay Byrne sign the pledge not to use a mobile phone while driving.

Minister Varadkar and Gay Byrne sign the pledge not to use a mobile phone while driving.

A new qualitative study on driver distraction, conducted by the Road Safety Authority (RSA), has revealed that mobile phones and children are the biggest distractions to a driver. The results of the study were presented at the RSA’s Annual International Road Safety Conference which took place at Dublin Castle today, Thursday 20 March 2014 and focused on the issue of Driver Distraction.

The study was conducted over an 18 day period with 30 drivers of all ages and experience who shared their views, opinions and experiences of being distracted at the wheel. The participants committed to eliminating distractions behind the wheel, such as using their mobile phone, listening to the radio, eating or drinking for a period of seven days and shared their experiences through video diary blogs and discussion forums.

The study highlighted how busy, modern lifestyles are cited as a reason for using a mobile phone while driving, and in particular, how drivers feel that external pressures leave them with no option but to use their phone when driving. Men and women rationalise their behaviour in different ways, with men citing work, particularly self-employment, and women citing busy schedules and being available in emergency situations as a reason to use their phone while driving. The research also found that the most effective way to change a driver’s behaviour is to understand the lifestyle pressures drivers are exposed to, in order to help reduce the problem of driver distraction and offer practical coping strategies to manage potential distractions while driving, ranging from how best to plan for trips with children, to how best manage the demands of mobile phones, and smartphones in particular, when setting out on a journey.

Speaking at the conference, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Mr Leo Varadkar TD said:
“This conference is an important step in raising awareness about the dangers of driver distraction. The discussions today show just how easy it is to be distracted while driving. We live in a plugged-in world where we are expected to be in constant contact, even in the car. But the reality is that when we are driving, our attention should only be focused on driving safely. Later this year, penalty points for using a mobile phone while driving will increase from two to three points. As road-users, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our passengers and other road-users to keep our attention on the road, so I would encourage all road-users to switch off before you drive off.”

Mr Gay Byrne, Chairman, RSA welcomed delegates to the conference: “In the past, the biggest killers on our roads were drink-driving and speeding. And although these continue to be a significant problem, we are now faced with other killer behaviours as a result of the technology-driven world we live in. People may not think that using a mobile phone, or texting, or even eating and drinking behind the wheel of the car is a problem, but research tells us that the distraction caused by using a mobile phone while driving is comparable to driving drunk.”

“Driver distraction plays a role in 20-30% of all road collisions. This means that last year, as many as 11,274 collisions could have been caused by driver distraction – and many of these may have had serious or tragic consequences. The message here is simple – when you’re behind the wheel of a car, your only focus should be your driving.”

The conference, which was attended by over 200 delegates, featured speakers from the US, Sweden, Italy, the UK and Ireland. Among the speakers at the conference was Ms Michelle Kuckelman, Executive Director of Integrated Brand Marketing, Management and Advertising at AT&T, who gave an insight into AT&T’s texting and driving campaign, It Can Wait. The campaign focuses on educating people, especially teens, about the dangers of texting and driving and asks them to make a pledge to never text while driving at ItCanWait.com. The message is simple: When it comes to texting and driving, It Can Wait. So far, the campaign has reached hundreds of millions of people through social media with over 4 million pledges to never text and drive.

Speaking at the conference, Ms Kuckelman said:

“Our It Can Wait campaign has changed the lives of many people in the United States by reminding us all that when it comes to texting and driving, no text is worth a life. All of our efforts are making a difference; particularly new and exciting preliminary research we’re doing with state departments of transportation suggesting a strong, positive correlation between our campaign activities and a reduction in crashes. We’re excited by the impact of the It Can Wait movement so far, but as we all know from just watching our fellow drivers, our work is not done.”

Among the other speakers at the conference was Professor John Lee, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the University of Wisconsin, whose presentation ‘Definitions, Dangers and Directions for Driver Distraction’ focused on the impact of distraction on driving. In the US, it contributes to approximately 15% of fatal crashes, as many as 5,000 fatalities every year.

To further raise awareness of the issue of driver distraction, the RSA and An Garda Síochána are launching the first ever National ‘Switch Off Before You Drive Off’ Campaign next Thursday 27 March. This new campaign will raise awareness of the dangers of driver distraction and call on motorists to turn off their devices before getting behind the wheel of the car. The campaign will have a significant social media focus, encouraging road-users to tweet their support, but not while driving, using the hashtag #driverdistraction

Assistant Commissioner John Twomey, An Garda Síochána said: “We all know how distracting phones can be in any situation and the car is no different, except in the car, this type of driver distraction can have fatal consequences. An Garda Síochána welcomes any legislative change which makes the roads safer for all. This change highlights just how serious the issue of driver distraction is and we hope to further bring home this message to drivers through our National ‘Switch Off Before You Drive Off’ Campaign next week.”

At the conference, Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University spoke about finding out more about the driver’s brain in order to help design enhanced safety and warning systems for both drivers and other road-users. Mr Francesco Mitis from the World Heath Organistaion presented an overview of driver distraction in the EU and Dr Claudia Wege, Human Factors Specialist at Volvo outlined how they are developing various driver distraction and inattention countermeasures in order to reduce the number of collisions related to driver distraction.

Broadcaster, Journalist and TV Documentary Presenter Mr Charlie Bird presented a new RSA short documentary on people’s attitudes to and use of mobile phones when driving. The documentary can be viewed on the RSA’s social media pages, www.facebook.com/RSAIreland and www.youtube.com/RSAIreland