Multitasking. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? Being able to tackle more than one task at a time is seen as a positive attribute among staff in the modern workplace. It maximises their time, and makes them more efficient and productive. Bosses like multitasking staff. But multitasking is a big no-no for fleet drivers.

The dangers of multitasking

A report published at the end of 2015 by Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), called The Battle for Attention, explained the dangers of multitasking, saying: “Research has confirmed that tasks almost always interfere with other tasks carried out at the same time. The brain never actually focuses on two tasks at the same time – it switches back and forward between them.

“As driving is so complex and requires various cognitive processes, taking on another task when driving can mean a driver is unable to pay sufficient attention to all the activities required for safe driving. This can lead to a processing failure, resulting in a loss of control, putting the driver and other road users in physical danger.”

How big a problem is distraction?

Recent research from the US suggests that 78% of collisions and 65% of near-misses are caused by some form of inattention or driver distraction.

Another study, using video footage of motorists, found all drivers are distracted at some point — altogether, drivers were recorded spending 14.5% of the total time that the vehicle was moving doing one distracting activity or another – or once every six minutes, on average.

In the UK, the largest contributory factor in reported road accidents is the driver failing to look properly (accounting for over 40% of collisions). How much of that not looking properly is due to being distracted is difficult to quantify, however, it’s safe to assume that there is a significant element of in-car distraction in the common excuse “sorry, mate, I didn’t see you” (known as SMIDSY in road safety circles).

Types of distraction

Four different types of driver distraction have been identified by psychologists. They are:

Visual – a driver seeing something that impairs their observation of the road environment around them.

Cognitive – when a driver is thinking about something else other than driving.

Biomechanical – caused by a driver doing some physical task unrelated to the act of driving, such as reaching for something in the cabin.

Auditory – a sound that prevents the driver from focusing their hearing on driving-related tasks.

Some activities can even involve multiple forms of distraction: for example, using a handheld phone while driving results in biomechanical, auditory and cognitive distractions.

What fleet drivers should avoid

With fleet drivers on the road often for large portions of the working day, distraction is particular problem, as they frequently have to perform other tasks related to their job – contacting customers, responding to requests from colleagues, setting or changing appointments, etc.

Many fleet drivers also feel that they don’t have time to stop to eat, so often pick up a sandwich or a snack to keep them going. Eating while driving involves a high level of biomechanical distraction, according to the TRL report.

How to manage distraction

Managing distraction is a difficult task, but it’s not impossible.

Introducing common-sense guidelines that take a realistic view of likely distractions is the best way forward.

So recognise that fleet drivers will have to respond to messages and encourage them to get into the good habit of pulling over to a safe place in order to deal with them.

The same goes for eating. Impress upon drivers the need to take time to stop and refuel themselves, just as they have to refuel their vehicles.

It’s also important to get drivers to recognise distractions and stop themselves from undertaking a distracting activity before doing it.

Using technology to avoid distraction

Modern in-car and smartphone technology is making avoiding distraction increasingly difficult, but there are some ways of minimising its effects.

Dermot Coughlan, operations director at Kelly Group, explained what his company does for its 1,000 plus fleet drivers: “We’ve installed an app on our phones that kicks the phone into airplane mode when it hits 10mph. When the vehicle stops, it kicks back in again and it’ll pick up their messages and calls. It restricts the use of their company phones.”

Let’s face it, multitasking is actually a bit of a myth. Doing more than one thing at a time just means that you’re not doing anything to the best of your ability. That’s fine if you’re filing, but out on the road, it can have fatal consequences.


The Battle for Attention (TRL)

The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study (National Highways Traffic Safety Administration).

The Impact of Driver Distraction on Road Safety: Results from a representative survey in two Australian States. S. P McEvoy, M R Stevenson, M Woodward, Injury Prevention 2006;12:242-247.

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