How many accidents are caused by distracted drivers?

With ‘distracted driving’ now posing one of the biggest public safety concerns across the UK, it’s perhaps little wonder there are now more fatalities than we’ve ever seen in over a decade.


Driving, of course, requires the full attention of the driver at all times.  In fact, any driver will readily tell you that both hazards and the unexpected can quite literally happen at any time on our roads and often without notice. And yet many drivers still remain distracted and simply fail to respond in a timely manner (or at all) when required to do so.


In this blog we take at look at exactly how many accidents are currently caused by distracted drivers and some of the many reasons why.


How many accidents are currently caused by distracted drivers?


According to the UK’s road safety charity, ‘Brake’, there were 1445 fatal crashes in the UK during 2016, of which 537 were due to ‘failure to look’ or other notable distractions, including the use of mobile phones.


What’s more, during a 2014 study conducted by Cranfield University, over 1 in 6 drivers out of 11,000 observed were found to be engaged in a distracting in-car activity, including the use of phones and smoking.  The study also revealed that younger drivers were the most likely ‘offenders’.


But mobile phones aren’t the only problem. In 2016 both Brake and insurance company Direct Line conducted a survey, “Eating at the wheel” which revealed that a third of drivers not only admit to eating behind the wheel but that a massive one in ten had suffered a near-miss as a result of eating whilst driving.


And it seems the problem doesn’t just affect the UK.  In a 2005 case-crossover study conducted by the University of Western Australia, it was found that drivers who use their phones (whether hands-free or hand-held) were FOUR TIMES more likely to be involved in a crash resulting in injuries than those drivers completely free from distraction.


What constitutes ‘distracted driving’


Put simply, anything which distracts the driver from fully concentrating on the road is classed as being a distraction although this will naturally vary between individuals and their own concentration span. However, typical examples of distracted driving usually include:


  • Talking to other passengers in the vehicle (particularly when making eye contact with them)

  • Smoking (including lighting up and/or rolling cigarettes). This can even include the risk of cigarettes dropping onto the driver’s lap.

  • Eating or drinking (which might include unwrapping food or opening drinks etc.)

  • Using a mobile phone (whether hand-held or hands-free)

  • Typing information into sat-nav systems

  • Reading infotainment screens

  • Observing incidents or people outside of the vehicle (particularly when passing a road traffic or other incident)

  • The use of ‘cruise control’

  • Listening to music – particularly at high volumes (which can even prevent the driver from hearing crucial external sounds such as emergency service sirens and so on)

  • Running live streams on social media or taking ‘selfies’

  • Combing hair, applying make-up and using the vanity mirror whilst driving


Of course, this list is by no means conclusive but certainly gives a general idea as to what causes accidents on our roads. Any type of distraction can quickly impede a driver’s ability to recognise hazards and/or react on time – and of course, a driver must also deal with the reaction of others, such as cyclists and pedestrians; all of whom can have a massive impact on a given situation.


So what goes through a driver’s mind?


According to academic research, there are two main traps when it comes to distracted driving – “consequence traps” and “conditioning traps”.


Here we take a look at the findings of each concept:


  1. A “consequence trap” is when the driver is well aware of the risk he or she is taking (or about to take) yet decides to take the risk anyway – for example, by opening a can of pop, sending a quick text message or changing a radio station.


  1. A “conditioning trap” is almost a follow on from the consequence trap. This is when the driver is again well aware of the risk but since he or she has previously “got away with it” (perhaps even on numerous occasions) it becomes a lot easier to assume that nothing bad will happen this time either.


Unfortunately it remains a common misconception among drivers that they can easily divide their attention from the task in hand if something else happens which needs their immediate attention.  So, a driver might well subconsciously think: “I can always keep my eye on the road whilst I quickly send this text … there’s nothing up ahead anyway.”  And so starts a very dangerous level of complacency.


Aside from that, driving whilst being alone can often incite a driver to think about a whole host of things other than driving – from what’s happened that particular day at work, what they fancy for tea, who they need to call when they get home and so on.  Unfortunately, whilst driving can certainly make for well-needed “me time”; it can also quickly afford the potential for a driver to start thinking about many other things, rather than the vehicle’s actual safety on the road.  In fact, many drivers even confess to having a ‘mind block’ in terms of the journey they’ve only recently undertaken, thus lacking metacognitive awareness.  Indeed, the latter aspect was accepted by David Crundall speaking on behalf of the Nottingham Trent University at a 2016 International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology.


Which age groups are most prone to distracted driving?


According to ‘Brake’ recent studies show us that both younger drivers (aged between 17 and 29) and older drivers (over the age of 65) are much more likely to cause accidents due to distracted driving – and it seems that certain types of distractions have a greater influence on these age groups than any other.


Of course, whilst younger drivers will also lack general driving experience, studies show that they’re also more likely to fall foul of distractions such as social media, listening to loud music and interacting with other passengers.


So what is being done about distracted driving?


With such negative statistics surrounding distracted driving many agencies, organisations and charities continue to address the very evident problem of distracted driving. What’s more, Driver Distraction and Drowsiness Recognition (DDDR) systems also operate across the UK in an attempt to detect and deter distracted drivers from causing accidents on the roads across the UK.  Indeed, some new vehicles are now fitted with such systems and have the ability to alert the driver in the event that signs of fatigue or distraction are shown and that can only be a good thing in terms of future advancement.


In October 2016, lorry driver Tomasz Kroker was sentenced to 10 years in prison when his vehicle killed a mother and her three children when his lorry ran into the back of her vehicle. During the Court hearing, Judge Maura McGowan notably stated he “…might as well have had his eyes closed” given that he was scrolling through music selections at the time of impact.  Unfortunately this very much proves the theory behind the “conditioning trap” and yet again is indicative of the many dangers posed by distracted driving.




There can therefore be little doubt that the amount of accidents caused by distracted driving makes for harrowing news.


For some drivers, distractions continue to play a very minor role in their day-to-day journeys and until such time as the dangers are made abundantly clear it seems apparent that the figures will, unfortunately, continue to speak for themselves.