Different Types of Distracted Driving

Though distracted driving is often most commonly associated with using a cell phone for texts or calls, there are many different types of distracted driving that may contribute to a driver’s manual, visual, and cognitive impairment. Some distractions, such as texting and driving, may include impairments in all three areas.

Distracted driving can be extremely dangerous and even deadly, and it is important for drivers to understand what exactly constitutes a distraction when they are on the road, in order to keep themselves and others safe. As defined by Distraction.gov, the U.S. government’s official website for distracted driving, a driver is practicing distracting behavior when:

  • Texting
  • Using a cell phone or smart phone
  • Eating and/or drinking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming
  • Reading, including maps
  • Using a navigation system
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio or other listening device

There are three categories that law enforcement and researchers tend to use when discussing distracted driving: manual distractions, visual distractions, and cognitive distractions. The following sections will explain these in more detail.

Manual Distractions

Distractions that cause manual impairment involve the driver taking one or both hands off of the wheel in order to perform that task. Such distractions include, but are not limited to: eating and drinking, helping a child with their car seat or seat belt, smoking, eating, rummaging through personal belonging, and turning knobs in your car (such as the radio or air conditioning). These distractions can be dangerous because they cause the driver to be unable to steer their vehicle with proper reaction times, and may cause them to veer off the road or into traffic/other cars.

Visual Distractions

Visual distractions are what most people associate with distracted driving, and makes the most sense by definition, which is partaking in any activity that causes your eyes to wander off the road. Visual impairment includes the classic texting and driving scenario, as well as looking at a GPS navigation system, electronic car devices, looking at billboard advertisements, grooming, and more.

Visual distractions are particularly dangerous because they impair a driver’s ability to consistently assess his or her surroundings for potential hazards, which is something that anyone driving a motor vehicle must do in order to ensure their own safety as well as the safety of others on the road. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that the average text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour.

Cognitive Distractions

Cognitive distractions are somewhat less straightforward than the other two types of distractions, since they do not involve taking your hands off the steering wheel or looking away from the road. A cognitive distraction is one that causes a driver’s mind focus to drift away from driving, which includes using hands-free calling devices, talking to other passengers, daydreaming, listening to the radio, and more.

Studies have shown that using hands-free devices to make phone calls is no safer than using handheld devices. In fact, the National Safety Council (NSC) contends that drivers can miss 50% of what they are seeing around them out the windshield if they are talking on a hands-free device.

Cognitive distractions are deceiving because they allow drivers to have full view of their surroundings, but they are often not able to fully process hazards that could occur.

More Information

For more information about what constitutes distracted driving, helpful resources include: