Indian Journal of Community and Family Medicine

: 2019  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 34--38

They do not just drive when they are driving: Distracted driving practices among professional vehicle drivers in South India

Rizwan Suliankatchi Abdulkader1, Chittibabu Madhan2, Kathiresan Jeyashree2,  
1 Department of Statistics, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, India
2 Department of Community Medicine, Velammal Medical College Hospital and Research Institute, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Correspondence Address:
Kathiresan Jeyashree
Department of Community Medicine, Velammal Medical College Hospital and Research Institute, Madurai, Tamil Nadu


Background: Driving is a complex task, requiring coordination between multiple mental and physical faculties. Distractions lead to delayed recognition of information needed to drive safely. It is essential to understand distracted driving practices to regulate them and reduce crash risk. This study aims to identify common distractors among professional vehicle drivers in South India. Methodology: A questionnaire-based cross-sectional study was conducted on professional drivers of three-and four-wheeled vehicles. Epicollect 5, a mobile-based data collection tool, was used for data collection and entry. Results: Among 82 male professional drivers (57.3% car, 35.4% bus/lorry), with a mean (standard deviation) age of 38.4 (10.6) years, all reported being distracted by at least one of the listed distractors. Mobile phone usage and cognitive distractions were reported by 75.6% and 79.3%, respectively. Younger drivers (P = 0.005) and those with less than a decade of driving experience (P = 0.038) were more likely to use mobiles while driving. Drivers reporting cognitive distractions were more likely to have met with an accident than those who did not (44.6% vs. 23.5%). Conclusions: Distracted driving is common among professional drivers. Cognitive distractions are as common as distractions due to mobile phones. Sensitization of drivers and strict enforcement of legislation are recommended.

How to cite this article:
Abdulkader RS, Madhan C, Jeyashree K. They do not just drive when they are driving: Distracted driving practices among professional vehicle drivers in South India.Indian J Community Fam Med 2019;5:34-38

How to cite this URL:
Abdulkader RS, Madhan C, Jeyashree K. They do not just drive when they are driving: Distracted driving practices among professional vehicle drivers in South India. Indian J Community Fam Med [serial online] 2019 [cited 2019 Aug 20 ];5:34-38
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Driving a vehicle is a complex task, requiring the concurrent execution of various cognitive, physical, sensory, and psychomotor skills. Distraction occurs when a driver “is delayed in the recognition of information needed to safely accomplish the driving task because some event, activity, object, or person within or outside the vehicle compels or induces the driver's shifting attention away from the driving task.”[1] While the exact proportion of drivers who are distracted while driving is quite variable across countries,[2] studies suggest that this proportion has been increasing over the past decade.

Distractions can be classified based on their source is internal to the vehicle like in-vehicle gadgets or mobile phones or external to the vehicle such as flashboards or pedestrians.[3] Distractions could make the driver take his eyes off the road and/or hands off the steering wheel. Cognitive distractions, causing the driver's concentration to drift away from the driving activities, such as conversing, using voice-controlled gadgets, thinking, calculating, and listening to audio are also observed.

Mobile phones alone have been known to increase the crash risk by three to four times.[3],[4] According to an estimation, restricting cell phone use while driving could have prevented 22% of the road traffic accidents in the US in 2008.[5] In India, around 31% of the road traffic accidents could be attributed to the use of mobile phone while driving leading to an estimated loss of 3% of the gross domestic product.[6] Besides these, the increasing use of gadgets that are incorporated into the vehicle's design has increased the in-vehicle distractions that a driver is exposed to.[7]

It is necessary to understand the distracted driving practices within a given social milieu to be able to plan appropriate and effective interventions to prevent and tackle them.[8] This study aimed to identify the common distracters while driving among professional vehicle drivers in a city in South India.


This cross-sectional study recruited participants aged 18 years and above who drive vehicles for a livelihood in Madurai city, India. Although both males and females were proposed to be included, we could recruit only male participants, as it is uncommon for women in India to choose driving as an occupation. Vehicles were defined to include cars, buses, lorries, and auto rickshaws. Assuming 45% use mobile phones while driving, desiring an absolute precision of 12, allowing an alpha error of 5%, the desired sample size was 67. Accounting for nonresponse and missing data, a target sample size of 80 was calculated and a final sample size of 82 was achieved. The drivers were contacted at places where they were most likely to gather namely bus stands/terminals, parking lots in public places, and auto-rickshaw stands. Informed consent was obtained and after assurance of anonymity and confidentiality, a questionnaire prepared and pretested for this purpose was administered. The questionnaire was designed to collect data on the driver's practices while driving and their responses to the different distracters: physical and cognitive. The questionnaire also elicited the drivers' perceived severity of distraction caused by each of the listed distracters. Since being distracted while driving is undesirable behavior, some social desirability bias was anticipated. Repeating questions in a different context, presenting real-life scenarios, and requesting to respond as a third person were the techniques used to overcome this bias. For cognitive distractions, we had questions on “family stress,” “workplace stress,” “ruminating over events while driving,” and “engaging in serious conversations with co-occupants.” A positive response to any of these questions was meant to indicate cognitive distraction.

Epicollect 5, a mobile-based data collection tool designed by Imperial College, London, was used for data collection to ensure efficient and quality-assured data collection and entry.[9] Data were exported to Microsoft Excel and analyzed using SPSS v21.0 (IBM Corp., Armonk, NY). The study was approved by the Institute Ethical Committee of Velammal Medical College Hospital and Research Institute, Madurai.


All the 82 drivers who participated in the study were male, with a mean (standard deviation [SD]) age of 34.8 (10.4) years. Most (93%) had attended some level of school or college. The median (interquartile range) duration of being a professional driver was 13 (7, 20) years [Table 1].{Table 1}

When asked to rate various distracters on a scale of 0–5, the mean ± SD scores were highest for mobile phones (4.5 ± 0.8), family (4.4 ± 0.9), and workplace stress (4.4 ± 0.8).

Drivers aged <35 years (P = 0.005) and those with less than a decade of driving experience (P = 0.038) were more likely to use mobile phones during driving compared to their older and more experienced counterparts. Younger drivers also reported to be significantly (P = 0.004) more distracted than older drivers by other distracters inside and outside the vehicle such as co-passengers, flashboards, eating or drinking within the vehicle, wearing on or taking off the seat belt, handling the music player or global positioning system, and smoking [Table 2].{Table 2}

Although not statistically significant, those who had ever met with an accident, were more likely to report cognitive distractions compared to those who had never met with an accident (44.6% vs. 23.5%, P = 0.114). There was no statistically significant association between having met with a road traffic accident and mobile phone usage or other distractions [Table 3]. Only 24 (29.2%) drivers had never been penalized for a traffic offense. Not using seat belt was the most common offense (63.4%), for which the drivers report having been penalized (data not shown).{Table 3}


Our questionnaire-based cross-sectional study on professional vehicle drivers revealed that all of them reported being distracted by one or the other of the listed distracters. Mobile phone usage and cognitive distractions were reported by almost three-fourths of the study participants. Drivers perceived mobile phones and mental stress as top distractions while driving. Drivers who reported cognitive distractions were more likely to have met with an accident than those who did not.

This prevalence of distracted driving practices was as high as 75.6% for mobile phone use, 79.3% for cognitive distraction, and 62.2% for other distractions. Shabeer and Banu estimated mobile phone usage among a sample of vehicle drivers in India at about 82%.[6] Farmer et al. have found that drivers in the US spend an average of 7% of the driving time talking on their phones.[5]

We found that younger and relatively inexperienced drivers (≤10 years of experience in driving) were more distracted while driving, especially using mobile phones while driving. Klauer et al. reported the same and in addition, reported that for the same distraction, the novice had higher odds of a crash compared to the experienced drivers in the USA.[10] Younger drivers are more technology savvy as compared to the older ones. Further, with experience, some of the tasks in driving become automatic and the experienced drivers are more capable of dividing attention to secondary tasks while driving.

Engaging in secondary tasks have been proved to increase crash or near-crash risk.[10] Using mobile phones restricts head movements, narrows the peripheral vision field, and can lead to poor velocity control and lane management.[11],[12] Drivers resort to compensatory measures such as slowing down or frequent braking when distracted in an attempt to reduce crash risk. Despite these, distraction has been reported to account for 10% and 17% of fatal and injury crashes, respectively.[12]

In our study, we could not find an association between mobile phone usage and history of having met with a major accident probably because of the small sample size. However, a substantial proportion of the interviewed drivers were using mobile phones while driving. Although not popular yet among our study population, hands-free phones are not recommended as a safer alternative to handheld phones.[13]

People with cognitive distractions were more likely to have met with a major accident compared to those who did not report cognitive distractions. A preoccupied mind as measured by questions on rumination, or an agitated state of mind as measured using questions on engaging in serious conversations, resolving conflicts or feeling workplace or family stress while driving were reported by almost 80% of the drivers studied. Emotional distractions may have adverse effects on the driver's behavior and compromise safe driving.[14] The emotional content of the distraction differentially influenced driving speed and response times depending on whether they were positive or negative.[15] Although visual distraction is expected to impair driving skill more than cognitive distraction, the latter made steering less smooth, affected vehicle control, and led to more episodes of hard braking.[16],[17] These distractions are relevant in the context of the increasing use of in-vehicle information systems which are intended to reduce the distraction by manual operation and handling of the in-vehicle devices. The possibility of cognitive distraction and its effects on driving is to be kept in mind while designing these devices.[18]

People rated mobile phones and mental stress high up as distracters in our study. Despite that, the prevalence of these distracted driving practices is high.[19] A recurring question is that why, despite the awareness about these distracters, do people continue yielding to them. While the risk has been communicated and is perceived, it does not reflect in the behavior.

Strengths and limitations

This is the first study focusing on distracted driving practices among professional vehicle drivers in India. There are a few limitations in this study. Our study interviewed a convenient sample of professional vehicle drivers. We could only collect self-reported data on distractions while driving and involvement in accidents due to distraction. A more preferred method of study using objective measures of the distraction based on surveillance camera recordings, in-vehicle devices, or official records of road traffic accidents would have yielded more robust data. Participants could have underreported the mobile phone usage as it is against law and perceived widely an undesirable practice. Cognitive distractions, on the other hand, are not generally perceived as undesirable behaviour. Further, since they are not easily detectable or punishable by law enforcers, they could have been reported accurately. The study's inability to detect an association between mobile phone use and having met with an accident could be because people who had met with accidents might have reduced their tendency to get distracted posttrauma.

 Conclusions and Recommendations

Distracted driving is common among professional drivers in Madurai, India. Cognitive distractions are as common as distractions due to mobile phones or other distracters within and outside the vehicle. Sensitization of the drivers to the hazards of distracted driving and its association with increased crash risk has to be undertaken. The in-vehicle gadgets need to be tested for their impact on driving skills before their becoming a part of the make of the vehicle. Strict enforcement of legislations governing distracted driving practices are needed to reduce distracted driving.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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