Distraction - How often are drivers distracted in traffic?

A large number of drivers appear to be engaged in activities which are potentially distracting. Naturalistic Driving research[i] shows that drivers spend approximately 50% of their driving time on distracting activities[13] (see also Table 2, third column ‘Prevalence’ in the question How dangerous is it when drivers are distracted in traffic?). In this study, the most frequent distracting activity proved to be talking to passengers: in approximately 15% of the entire driving time. About 6% to 9% of the entire driving time was spent on mobile phone use [13] [14]. Drivers also like to listen to music; well over 90% of drivers regularly listen to music in their cars.

A recent Dutch questionnaire study shows that drivers are often engaged in distracting activities [4] (see Table 1). 62% of the drivers in this study indicated having sometimes used their phones while driving. Telephones were mainly used for handsfree calls (42%) and for reading or sending text messages (39 % and 34% respectively). A much smaller number of drivers, viz. well over 20%, reported having sometimes made handheld calls. Prevalence data are also available, derived from observational studies (see [15]for example). These data indicate the percentage of drivers that were, during one time or another, engaged in distracting activities while driving; these are therefore lower than the figures derived from questionnaire studies which are concerned with the general frequency of distracting activities.

A recent observational study showed that the number of drivers making handheld calls is almost equal to the number of drivers operating smartphone screens[ii] (4% and 3% respectively) [15].Twice as many drivers were also found to make handheld calls compared to handsfree calls. This disparity may be caused by the fact that handsfree calls are harder to observe than handheld calls. Concerning truck drivers; they use mobile phones more often than car drivers: 11% and 7% respectively.

Distraction source

Distracting activity

% of drivers engaged in an activity

Having a conversation

Handsfree calls


Handheld calls


Operating a screen

Reading/sending text messages


Searching for something on phone/checking one’s phone


Taking pictures/recording videos


Setting navigation on phone


Operating phone to play music


Playing games


Table: 1. Percentage of drivers that indicate having been engaged in different distracting activities[4].

[i] Naturalistic Driving is a research method used to observe natural driving behaviour of road users by means of devices which inconspicuously register vehicle movements, driver behaviour (such as eye, head and hand movements) and external circumstances.

[ii]Operating a screen was defined as ‘texting or such like, in any case visibly occupied with a phone screen’.


Fact sheets(s)