DISTRACTED driving is a serious and growing threat to road safety. With more and more people owning mobile phones, and the rapid introduction of new in-vehicle communication systems, this problem is likely to escalate globally in the coming years.
It is startling that some 1.3 million people are estimated to die on the world's roads each year, while as many as 50 million are injured. Although many governments including the Namibian government already have programmes in place to reduce road deaths and injuries, the number of road fatalities is increasing, and if current trends continue, road crashes are predicted to become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030.
In April 2010, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Council noted that information and communication systems, including intelligent transportation systems, provide mechanisms for vehicular and passenger safety. The council also considered, however, that the proliferation of integrated in-vehicle ICT and nomadic devices, including navigational information and electronic data communications devices, may contribute to driver distraction, and are among the leading contributors to road traffic fatalities and injuries.
There are different types of driver distraction, but the use of mobile phones while driving is of primary concern to policy makers. Evidence suggests that this behaviour is increasing rapidly as a result of the exponential growth in the use of mobile phones more generally in society.
Nonetheless, mobile phone use may be considered as one example of the broader problem of driver distraction. Studies from a number of countries suggest that the proportion of drivers using mobile phones while driving has increased over the past 5 to 10 years, ranging from 1 percent up to 11 percent at any one moment. In many countries the extent of this problem remains unknown, as data on mobile phone use is not routinely collected when a crash occurs.
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. It is this last type of distraction known as cognitive distraction that appears to have the biggest impact on driving behaviour.
Evidence shows that the distraction caused by mobile phones could impair driving performance in a number of ways, for example longer reaction times (notable braking reaction time, but also reaction to traffic signals), impaired ability to keep in the correct lane, and shorter following distances.
Research has shown that texting, making calls, and other use of in-vehicle information and communication systems while driving is a serious source of driver distraction and increases the risk of accidents.
Technology-caused driver distraction is a global problem and has its stake in the more people dying in road crashes each year. The problem could be addressed by national laws and awareness campaigns, and some organisations can develop guidelines and standards to make in-vehicle information and communication systems less distracting and publicize legislation and enforcement.
Given the difficulty in removing the causes of distraction, such as the use of mobile phones, and in enforcing laws related to particular sources of distraction, it is likely that behavioral strategies to address this issue will need to involve strong campaigns to promote awareness of risk.
While the distraction resulting from mobile phone use is a growing concern and likely to become an issue to road safety efforts around the world, it is also important to keep in mind that other key risk factors, such as drinking and driving, speeding and the non-use of seatbelts, child restraints and motorcycle helmets, as well as poor road infrastructure, continue to be major sources of road traffic crashes and deaths in many countries.
There is a need to maintain a comprehensive approach to all key risk factors. Integral to the success of road safety initiatives is the understanding of distracted driving as a shared responsibility, with governments, industry, non-governmental organisations, health and education professionals and other agencies taking on different roles to deal with the issue.
The licensing system provides an important tool for addressing levels of driver distraction. Licensing handbooks and driving schools need to provide learner drivers with information on how to manage distraction safely, including information on the relative risks associated with engaging in distracting activities and their effects on driving performance; factors that make them more vulnerable to effects of distraction; practical strategies to reduce the effects of distraction, as well as advice on technology features and ways to use technologies that minimize distraction.
The graduated driver licensing should explain to young drivers the risks of distracting activities that are known to compromise safety, as well as test their ability to manage them. Whether licensing will have a further effect on crash risk beyond what could be achieved by enforcement of laws and raising public awareness is unclear. It is very important for the government to be proactive now to improve the aspects of road safety. Failure to act now could not only make it more difficult to address the issue at a later date, but would also lead to many more preventable traffic injuries and deaths on our national roads.