Part 1: Driver distraction: What is the root cause?

Guest post written by Dr Lucia Kelleher


Telematics Distraction prt1 1Roy was on his last shift for the week, he was tired and it seemed like the demands to deliver more items faster, increased each week.

The traffic was no heavier than usual and Roy wanted to finish on time to make the game that night.

He had the radio on and was running through his last drop-offs in his head – and that is the last thing he remembered.

Next thing Roy heard a sickening sound – he ‘came to’ realising he had lost control of his vehicle and had side swiped a stationary car. He quickly regained control and pulled over.

“It looked like you drove straight at the car mate,” said one of the people at the scene. Roy was not able to respond as he realised that he hadn’t even seen the parked car, in fact as he looked around he became aware that he did not remember driving down this street.

Sound familiar? Have you ‘missed’ parts of your journey, had gaps in your day where you don’t remember?

Have you suddenly become aware that you were NOT paying attention, and thought ‘crikey, I was off with the fairies’?

You are not alone – this happens to everyone, in fact drivers are better at paying attention than most other people generally, and also better at paying attention than other people who work in safety critical jobs.

Why is this the case? People who work in safety critical jobs are hypervigilant to their environment. This means they naturally pay attention to what is going on around them.

Drivers having the most demanding safety-critical jobs, which means they MUST pay full attention at all times.

So let’s get back to Roy – what we didn’t know about Roy was that he loved his football and it was the highlight of his week.

However, given that he had three young children and his wife worked as well, the football had become an issue at home.

He could see his wife’s point; however he felt that getting to the game was his pressure release.

What had happened to cause this accident was that he became totally distracted thinking about the arguments with his wife over the football, which coupled with being tired and work pressure, caused his brain to ‘overload’.

Brain overload is the root cause of distraction  

What Roy and most other drivers don’t realise is that brain overload is at pandemic levels with pretty much everyone.

The digital world we live in means that information (stuff we have to pay attention to) travels at the speed of light.

This means that we now have at times dozens of things to ‘pay attention’ to. The brain is not designed to handle this much information, and therefore we miss things.

Imagine a conveyer belt for loading goods being sped up to 10 times its normal speed – it wouldn’t work so well.

The brain is the same, what happens is that much of the ‘stuff’ is ignored, simply because the brain is pushed beyond its limits, and this is why we sometimes don’t see things that are right in front of our face.

Busy brain syndrome

The brain’s first job is to keep us safe from danger. The part of the brain that keeps us safe is called the survival brain, reptile brain or croc brain. This part of the brain has not changed since we were living in caves and were lunch for lions and a host of other predators.

This croc brain is not smart and is designed to ‘filter’ incoming ‘stuff’ for threats – called the ‘fight or flight centre’. Everything has to be ‘checked’ and the speed of stuff coming at the brain in today’s world has caused this fight or flight mechanism to be ON permanently.

The result is that all of us having Busy Brain Syndrome (BBS) to varying levels. The most insidious thing about BBS is that we are also locked into negative emotions and anxiety.  The croc brain has no idea that smart phones and all the rest of the ‘stuff’ is ‘not a lion’.

BBS ‘hijacks’ your control over your own brain and means you miss things just like Roy, who didn’t remember driving down the street where he side-swiped the car.

It was BBS that caused Roy to ‘miss’ seeing the car that he side-swiped, our  eyes don’t see – our brain does.

How to manage driver distraction

The good news is that there are some easy strategies that drivers can learn to help them stay focused, regardless of what is going on both at work and outside of work.

Telematics can be a powerful strategy to help – read Part 2 to find out how to reduce the risk of driver distraction in your driver workforce.