Your mobile phone could kill you

I’ve recently returned home from a 3000 km road trip. Driving such a long distance is always going to include some ‘events’ and on this trip these included having to make an emergency stop for a kangaroo in the road, in the dark, 200 km from anywhere.

I live in a country that is home to some of the world’s most deadly snakes and spiders; and if you manage to avoid those we also have sharks and crocodiles. However, kangaroos cause the deaths of more Australians each year than these other feared creatures. ‘Death by kangaroo’ is typically indirect, and mostly related to vehicle accidents. That explains why we fit ‘roo-bars to our vehicles, rather than bull-bars.

Around half of fatal accidents where animals are implicated in the crash are caused by people swerving to avoid the animal. Impact generally isn’t good for the animal, but swerving to avoid it can lead to a loss of control – often resulting in a rollover, or collision with trees. Neither of which are a good outcome when the next vehicle might not pass until a few hours later, or even the next day . . . Mobile/cell phone coverage outside built-up areas is zero. It still functions as a clock, torch, camera, calculator, alarm, music player and notebook, but none of these will connect you to the emergency services.

Avoiding kangaroos on a road trip is one thing. Avoiding other vehicles where a mobile phone has absorbed the driver’s attention is something else. In all the urban areas we passed through, we saw several drivers interacting with their smartphones – texting, ‘liking’ something on social media, reading emails, or even making a phone call. Recent studies suggest that we check our smartphones on average 50 times per day – and it seemed to us that most people prefer to do this whilst driving.

The Office of Road Safety states that distraction plays a role in a third of all road crash deaths and serious injuries in my State (Western Australia). A recent study of all Australian fatal road accidents found that 46% of crashes with known contributing factors had a distraction element.

In the US, official statistics for 2014 show that 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, in this year alone.

Across most countries, distraction appears to be largely associated with rear-end crashes, same direction crashes, single vehicle crashes, and crashes occurring at night.

So what causes distraction whilst driving?

Texting while driving - human factors - human factors 101

Not surprisingly, mobile phones are high on the list – which is why there is a specific offence of holding a phone whilst driving in many countries. However, this doesn’t seem to be having an impact on behaviours. At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using mobile phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving. A survey by a UK motoring organisation, the RAC, found that 26% of those surveyed admitted they have checked messages while driving in the last 12 months, while 19% have written and sent texts, emails or social media updates. These figures are similar to those found in other countries.

“Using mobile phones can cause drivers to take their eyes off the road, their hands off the steering wheel, and their minds off the road and the surrounding situation”

World Health Organization, 2011

What’s the problem?

Drivers divide their limited attention resources between interaction with the phone (texting, messaging, reading, talking etc.) and operating the vehicle in varying traffic conditions. In other words, the demands of the phone interaction have to compete with the demands of driving safely.

There are three main types of distraction:

  1. Visual: taking your eyes off the road
  2. Manual: taking your hands off the wheel
  3. Cognitive: taking your mind off driving.

Reading or writing messages while driving is especially dangerous, because it combines all three types of distraction. Messaging takes the driver’s attention away from driving more frequently, and for longer periods, than other distractions.

Using a mobile phone whilst driving has a significant effect on your ability to safely control the vehicle. It can:

  • impair your ability to maintain the correct lane position
  • impair your ability to maintain an appropriate and predictable speed
  • result in longer reaction times to detect and respond to unexpected events
  • result in missing traffic signals at junctions or railway crossings
  • reduce the visual field of view
  • result in shorter following distances to vehicles in front
  • result in accepting gaps in traffic streams that are not large enough
  • increase your mental workload, resulting in higher levels of stress and frustration
  • encourage you to look straight ahead rather than scanning the road ahead, and
  • reduce your awareness of what is happening around you in time and space.

Did you know that if you use any type of mobile phone (including hands-free) while driving, your reaction times are worse than if you drive under the influence of alcohol?

The videos below are a reminder of the consequences of distraction from using a smartphone whilst driving. Please share them with your loved ones.

Is using a hands-free device safe?

You may think because you’re using a hands-free phone, either via Bluetooth or an ear piece, that you’re safe and this doesn’t apply to you. Well, you *may* be safe from prosecution (this website does not provide legal advice), but you are still being distracted and putting lives at risk.

How is using your phone ‘hands-free’ different to having a conversation with a passenger?

The evidence indicates that talking to a passenger does not cause the same level of distraction as using a mobile phone, perhaps because of the visual communication that accompanies a face-to-face conversation; and because a passenger can see the traffic situation and adapt the conversation accordingly. When using a mobile phone while driving, it is the driver’s active engagement in the conversation that creates a serious distraction, not just the physical interference of holding the phone.

Several studies suggest that drivers using a mobile phone are approximately four times more likely to be involved in a crash. The increased risk is similar for both hand-held and hands-free phone use. This suggests that it is the cognitive distraction from being involved in a conversation on a mobile phone that has the most impact upon driving behaviour, and thus crash risk.

In my industry, the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP) published a set of Life-Saving Rules to raise awareness of the activities which are most likely to result in fatalities, along with the simple actions that individuals can take to protect themselves and others. One of these rules is not to use a phone whilst driving:

“you should not use a mobile phone or pager, send or read a text message, or use a hands-free mobile phone device”

IOGP, 2013

The guidance also states that if you are a passenger, you should intervene if a driver is using a phone in a moving vehicle.

You may even be distracted after finishing a call – analysis of phone records shows a relationship between accidents and calls made in the 10 minutes prior. Note that the police or crash investigators may obtain evidence from mobile phone companies to check whether a mobile phone was in use immediately prior to the accident, even if it wasn’t in use at the time.

park the phone - human-factors-101

Distraction in the workplace

Distraction is also a cause of incidents in the workplace – causing people to omit procedural steps, forget to complete tasks, misinterpret information, feel overloaded or rushed. There are ways of managing distractions; for example, some companies actively discourage unnecessary phone calls into the central control room, similar to the “Sterile Cockpit Rule” which limits unnecessary conversations and communications during taxi, takeoff, landing, or when an aircraft is below 10,000 feet.

Distraction led to Bad Aibling train crash

In December 2016, BBC news reported that a German court sentenced a train controller to three and a half years in jail over a rail disaster in Bavaria which killed 12 people and injured 89; when two commuter trains collided near Bad Aibling on 9th February 2016. The controller admitted to playing a fantasy game on his mobile phone just before the crash. He allowed the two trains onto a single-track line, which then collided while travelling at about 100km/h (60mph) south-east of Munich.

The controller did not test positive for alcohol or drugs on the day of the crash. News reports do not provide a link to investigation reports, or discuss whether these may have uncovered systemic failures.

Using this article in your workplace

There are several activities that you could create from this article, whether or not you employ professional drivers; for example:

  • Create a safety moment on Distractions. Ask the group to suggest how using a mobile phone can impair driving ability – using the bullets under ‘What’s the problem?’ above. Bring the discussion around to your workplace – what are the main distractions, and how might distractions impact on key behaviours? How do you manage these? Can you improve?
  • Have a short discussion on the differences between using a hands-free mobile, and actually holding a phone whilst driving. Also, consider how holding a phone is different from holding a cigarette, sandwich or a coffee?
  • Show the YouTube videos at your next safety meeting. Ask participants to make a commitment not to use their smartphone whilst driving. Take the pledge here:
  • Explore how your organisation interacts with its drivers and field-based staff.  Do your employees telephone their colleagues who may be driving?  Do you have a policy of ending the conversation if it’s known that the person is driving whilst taking the call?  Do you provide staff with hands-free kits, or install them in company cars – and expect them to take calls whilst driving?
  • Discuss more widely how distractions could impact on the activities of your team and how you might manage these.


Drivers who use mobile phones while driving have higher accident rates than those who do not, up to four times higher. As the use of smartphones increases, they will become an increasingly common cause of serious road traffic incidents.

Missing a call won’t kill you. 

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