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Internal Distraction; A Fleet Safety Problem

By Dr Lisa Dorn, Founder of PsyDrive

Distraction is defined as the diversion of attention away from activities critical to safe driving towards a competing activity. Extended glances away from the road can increase crash risk 7-fold (Dingus et al, 2016), but it’s not just visual distraction that can increase crash risk. The effect of internal distraction can be dangerous too. For fleet-based organisations, there is (quite rightly) a great deal of focus on managing the risk of external distractions like mobile phone use. However, the impact of internal distraction when driving leading to ‘mind off the road’ has been relatively neglected. If your fleet drivers are experiencing stressful life events like divorce or financial troubles, they can become preoccupied by worries about what is going on in their life and this directs attention towards processing emotions rather than the road and traffic environment.

Mobile phone use has straightforward impact on attentional capacity whilst driving and can easily be identified with the use of in-vehicle cameras or smartphone-based telematics, but internal distractions are more complex for fleet managers to identify. In-vehicle cameras and telematics cannot detect what a driver is thinking about and whether their ‘mind’s eye’ is replaying some stressful scenario and failing to process hazards with poor decision-making, lapses, errors, and violations leading to greater risk of crash involvement (Westerman and Haigney, 2000).

Internal distraction can explain some of the early findings on the impact of stress on crash involvement. Drivers who suffered some kind of recent social stress were five times more likely to cause a fatal crash (Brenner and Selzer, 1969). Drivers involved in divorce proceedings had significantly higher crash involvement and traffic violations (McMurray, 1970). Crashes and traffic violations steadily rose in the six months immediately prior to filing for divorce, reaching a peak within three months after filing, and then declined. Drivers involved in marital separation or divorce within the previous year have been found to be over four times more likely to be at-fault in a crash (Lagarde et al, 2004).

To deal with the risk of internal distractions, there are well-established techniques to increase attention to the present moment and reduce mind wandering. These techniques improve driver focus and train skills in self-regulation of attention to promote greater situational awareness and improve fleet safety (Koppell et al, 2018; 2019; Chin et al, 2019).

For more information about PsyDriver™ Workshops contact us at PsyDrive


Brenner, B., & Selzer, M. L. (1969). Risk of causing a fatal accident associated with alcoholism, psychopathology, and stress: Further analysis of previous data. Behavioral Science, 14(6), 490-495.

Chin, B., Lindsay, E. K., Greco, C. M., Brown, K. W., Smyth, J. M., Wright, A. G., & Creswell, J. D. (2019). Psychological mechanisms driving stress resilience in mindfulness training: A randomized controlled trial. Health Psychology, 38(8), 759.

Dingus, T. A., Guo, F., Lee, S., Antin, J. F., Perez, M., Buchanan-King, M., et al. (2016). Driver crash risk factors and prevalence evaluation using naturalistic driving data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2636–2641.

Koppel, S., Bugeja, L., Hua, P., Osborne, R., Stephens, A. N., Young, K. L., & Hassed, C. (2019). Do mindfulness interventions improve road safety? A systematic review. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 123, 88-98.

Koppel, S., Stephens, A.N., Hua, P., Young, K.L., Chambers, R., Hassed, C., (2018). What is the relationship between self-reported aberrant driving behaviours, mindfulness, and self-reported crashes and infringements? Traffic Inj. Prev. 19 (5), 480–487.

Lagarde, E., Chastang, J., Gueguen, A., Coeuret-Pellicer, M., Chiron, M., Sylviane, L., (2004). Emotional stress and traffic accidents: the impact of separation and divorce. Epidemiology 15 (6), 762–766.

McMurray, L., (1970). Emotional stress and driving performance: the effect of divorce. Behavioural Research in Highway Safety 1, 100–114.

Westerman, S. J., & Haigney, D. (2000). Individual differences in driver stress, error and violation. Personality and Individual Differences, 29, 981-998.


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