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How to Avoid Distracted Driving [3 Types of Driver Distractions]

May 12th, 2023

Nathaniel Leis

Nathaniel Leis

Nathaniel Leis is the director of safety for ATS. With 16 years of experience in the transportation industry, Nathaniel has worked with Behavior Based Safety programs, OSHA compliance programs, injury prevention and management, facility safety, organizational safety, regulatory compliance with the FRA and FMCSA and operations management. Nathaniel spent the first 12 years of his career in transportation in the railroad sector managing employee safety, facility safety, environmental compliance, intermodal operations and contractor safety for BNSF railway and TTX companies. Nathaniel joined the trucking industry in 2018 with ATS where he works with the operations departments in building and sustaining safety and regulatory compliance programming for ATS and its affiliate companies.

Distractions are easy to come by. For instance, when I sat down to write this, I was thinking about the merits of homemade guacamole versus the premade stuff you buy in the store. 

I got back on track fairly quickly — though my craving for guacamole lingered — but halfway through writing this introduction, I was once again distracted by the falling snow outside — in late April. Minnesota, folks, Minnesota.

No matter who we are, we encounter distractions throughout the day. Even the most focused truck driver can become distracted. While there’s nothing wrong with getting distracted from time to time — you certainly can’t avoid a deer running in the ditch or checking out a helicopter flying low overhead — intentionally engaging in distracting behaviors is problematic. 

You can’t avoid distracting deer frolicking in a nearby field, but you can avoid purposely distracting yourself while driving with things like intense conversations or unwrapping and eating messy food. And you can certainly put your phone away to avoid the temptation of checking your screen every time you get notified of your mother-in-law challenging you in Words with Friends.

Sure, there’s a chance you won’t get into an accident when you glance over at your phone. But there’s also a chance you do. And we all know the consequences of that. Best case: You veer off the road a bit while no one’s around you. Worst case: You miss the changing speed limit sign and take the approaching corner too quickly, flipping your tractor and trailer into the car next to you. 

Distractions are a key contributor to collisions and injuries in our industry and they come in various forms. In this article, I’ll use my two decades of experience with safety in the transportation industry to discuss: 

  • The three types of distractions
  • How to avoid distractions
  • Violations and consequences associated with distractions.

When you’re finished reading, you’ll have a comprehensive look at how you can avoid distractions on the road so you can arrive at your destination safely every time. 

Deer crossing the road.

Types of Truck Driver Distractions 

Three types of distractions take you away from the primary task of driving: physical, visual and cognitive. Each comes in many forms. 

Physical distractions occur when you remove your hands from the wheel. This could happen when you reach for an object, like your phone or a lighter and cigarette.  

Cognitive distractions take your mind away from your primary task: driving. Something that distracts you cognitively from the task of driving could be listening to a thought-provoking audiobook or having an argument on the phone. 

Visual distractions happen when you take your eyes off the road. You could be visually distracted when you look at your phone or even your GPS. 

Drivers can engage in one of these distractions or all three of them at once. For example, consider you grab your phone to switch the podcast you’re listening to. You’re engaged in listening to something complex, you’ve taken one of your hands off the wheel and you’re looking at your phone instead of the road.

Why Are Distractions Bad for Truck Drivers? 

It’s one thing if I get distracted from writing an email at work. I might miss a deadline, my boss might get mad at me and so on. 

A distraction on the road, however, can be catastrophic. 

There’s this common myth we love to believe. The myth says we’re good at multitasking — great even. 

I can eat a sandwich while driving. 

I can take the cap of my soda off and keep my rig going straight. 

I can glance at my phone while driving and I won’t veer into the next lane. 

However, studies show that the brain simply doesn’t multitask. It does one thing at a time and rapidly switches to another task. Back and forth. When you take that cover off a bottle of soda, your entire focus is on that task whether or not you’re doing something else at the same time. You might be steering and eating, but as far as your brain is concerned, you’re actually just switching between those tasks very quickly. 

That has a profound impact on doing things well. When we multitask, we’re worse at both tasks. 

Then, yet another factor mixes in. Human biology is wired to conserve resources. The first time we do something — let's again use the example of deciding to eat or take a drink while driving — it takes a lot of resources and focus. When we continue to repeat that behavior and receive a positive outcome, the task requires fewer resources during the decision-making process. 

After you’ve made that decision and completed the task successfully countless times, you’re no longer deciding. It’s the brain’s predictive analysis saying, “If I do this thing, I get this result and it’s not a bad result so I’m going to keep doing it.” We no longer see these behaviors or tasks as distractions. 

This behavior, then, results in poor performance behind the wheel and increases the risk of negative outcomes because we’re failing to mentally evaluate these decisions.

Let’s lay out two scenarios.

Scenario One:

You’re driving down the road, grab your bottle of soda, untwist the cap, take a drink and keep on driving and move on with your day without incident. 

Scenario Two: 

You’re driving down the road, grab your bottle of soda, struggle to untwist the cap, fumble with the bottle and drop it. The car in front of you slams on its brakes. There’s debris in the road. You slam into the back of them. 

The more we allow distractions to pull our attention from the road, the more likely we’re at risk of scenario two occurring. 

Truck driver on cell phone while driving.

How to Avoid Distracted Driving

So how do we fight distractions on the road?

The first is to set ourselves up to have the things we need on the road before we pull out of the parking lot — like having beverages opened and a playlist ready to go. 

If you need a beverage, take off the cover before you leave. Open food before you leave. Skip the complicated foods, like chips and guac.

As safety director, I don't recommend eating or drinking while operating your vehicle but I also recognize it’s important to quench your thirst. Excessive thirst can be a distraction in and of itself over time. 

If you’re an individual who likes to listen to music or a podcast, set up a playlist for the duration of your drive. If you’re going to be driving for four hours, queue up a four-hour playlist or several podcast episodes. Choose an audiobook that’s at least four hours long. 

This helps you avoid the physical and visual distraction of taking your hands off the wheel, picking up your device and choosing something to play. 

Think about how cognitive distractions play a role in taking your focus off the road. Listening to Tolstoy or a book examining astrophysics probably isn’t the best idea. Choose something that provides an easy listening experience.

It’s common practice among heavy haul drivers and their teams to avoid listening to music or anything else entirely because the freight is so intense and requires full concentration.                        

You should always keep your cell phone out of reach. Don’t look at the alert that just came through on your phone. Texting and having intense conversations on the phone is incredibly dangerous. 

Instead, plan breaks throughout your day to check your phone. If you’re a flatbed driver, you’re required to stop periodically (every 150 miles or so) to check your securements. Plan to check your phone then. 

If you need to be reachable by your loved ones, set up regular breaks to pull over into a safe location and check your phone. You might be concerned about this advice because it requires a lot of extra break time. However, if you make a poor choice and end up in a serious accident, the consequences far outweigh a little lost time.

We see the consequences of driving while distracted in the news all the time — teens killed because they were texting and driving; accidents caused by a driver watching Netflix. 

Keep those scenarios in your mind as potential outcomes; then, make a better decision rather than keeping up with the repetition. Little adjustments will help you reduce distractions. You have to make a commitment to not engage in dangerous behavior. You can destroy everything you worked for in a second. 

What are the Violations Associated with Distracted Driving?

Distractions are the second most common reason drivers are pulled over and receive violations — second only to maintenance violations. I’ll let you in on a little secret: You’re more likely to get pulled over for an inspection if you’re visibly violating a rule.

Common violations include handheld device violations, speeding tickets and erratic lane changes. 

Handheld device violations are serious violations that come with hefty Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) points. This results in 10 points on your record and points triple in the first six months following the violation. You're let go if you get over 30 points at ATS. You can’t have 31 points. Just one more violation and you’d be done at ATS. 

Being distracted makes it really easy to miss road signs that notify you of upcoming lane changes and speed zones. If you’re looking down when you encounter one, it’s easy to unknowingly break a rule of the road. This increases the likelihood of ending up in an accident. 

Now imagine if you miss a sign for an approaching dead end or a low bridge. Looking down for one second can lead to bad consequences for you.

Keep in mind: If you’re wandering in your lane because you’re not paying attention, you can also be pulled over and given a violation. 

Winding road.

Prevent Accidents On the Road

It’s easy to get distracted and there are distractions you simply can’t prevent on the road. However, you are in charge of your distracting behaviors on the road. Make sure you aren’t distracting yourself physically, cognitively or visually by doing things like reaching for things in your cab, listening to distracting entertainment or looking at a device instead of at the road. 

When you repeatedly engage in distracting behaviors and they don’t end badly, they can become habit. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever face consequences; in fact, regularly engaging in distracting behaviors makes you more prone to accidents. 

Safety should always be a value on the road. Staying distraction free keeps you safe, it keeps others on the road safe and it keeps your truck damage-free and out of the shop. 

If you’re looking for more ways to avoid accidents, check out these five safety tips.