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Smoking in cars

In September 2007 the Driving Standards Agency (DSA), an executive agency of the Department for Transport, updated the Highway Code for the first time in eight years. Smoking has now been added to a list of distractions listed in the code that already included:

  • Loud music
  • Trying to read maps
  • Inserting a cassette or CD or tuning a radio
  • Arguing with your passengers or other road users
  • Eating and drinking

According to the Department of Transport, a fixed penalty notice could be issued to people who smoke while driving at the discretion of the police.

Some anti-smoking campaigners are now calling for ban on smoking while driving, in the same way that the use of mobile phones is prohibited.

Forest is strongly opposed to such a ban on the grounds that there is no evidence that smoking while driving is a major distraction to the driver, there are no records of smoking being the cause of road accidents, and laws already exist to discourage dangerous or reckless driving - so why do we need yet more legislation?

In our opinion, moves to ban smoking while driving have far more to do with the "denormalisation" of smoking than it has with road safety. It is designed to make it increasingly difficult for people to find anywhere they can smoke (in the hope that they will quit).

Driver distraction - international studies

(1)  The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study
The most recent international study on smoking while driving is the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), published in April 2006.

It examines types of secondary distractions (smoking while driving is considered a "secondary distraction", along with talking on the phone, speaking to passengers, etc, i.e. performing a task unrelated to actually driving that requires subjects to divert attention from the task of driving), broken out for crash and near-crash events.

The most frequent secondary tasks contributing to crashes were internal distractions, wireless devices, and passengers. The most frequent types of inattention for near crashes and incidents were wireless devices and passenger-related tasks. Accidents caused by smoking were negligible by comparison.

(2)  The Role of Driver Distraction in Traffic Crashes
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in the USA funded a study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research published in May 2001. The Role of Driver Distraction in Traffic Crashes documents the relative reported frequency of serious crashes caused by various forms of driver distraction.

This report included analysis of five years of Crashworthiness Data System (CDS) data - an annual probability sample of approximately 5,000 police-reported crashes involving at least one passenger vehicle that has been towed from the crash scene. 

In the study, "driver distraction" is defined as occurring 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."  The presence of a triggering event distinguishes a distracted driver from one who is simply inattentive or 'lost in thought'."

The specific sources of distraction among distracted drivers were, in order of frequency:

Specific distraction                                % of drivers
Outside person, object, or event            29.4%
Adjusting radio/cassette/CD                  11.4%
Other occupant                                     10.9%
Unknown distraction                               8.6%
Moving object in vehicle                         4.3%
Other device/object                               2.9%
Adjusting vehicle/climate controls           2.8%
Eating and/or drinking                            1.7%
Using/dialing cell phone                          1.5%
Smoking related                                 0.9%
Other distractions                                25.6%

According to the above reports, talking to other passengers - and even singing to oneself - is much more distracting than smoking.

(3)  Smoking and non-fatal traffic accidents
The suggestion that "smoking" be added to the Highway Code's list of distractions appears to have been arrived at by consulting a study, "Smoking and non-fatal traffic accidents", conducted by Médico de Familia, Centro de Salud Delicias Norte, in Zaragoza, Spain in 2001. Its objective was: "To investigate the possible associations between smoking and nonfatal traffic accidents, and to evaluate the possible influence of other factors on traffic accidents."

The study concluded: "In statistical terms, smokers have twice as many accidents as non smokers. The absence of significant differences between smokers who do and do not smoke while driving suggests that smoking increases the risk of being involved in traffic accidents regardless of whether drivers refrain from smoking at the wheel."

In other words, they found that smokers had more accidents than non-smokers (statistically, perhaps dog owners, anglers and beekeepers have more accidents) and then "suggest" (ie they can't prove the link) that smokers are more prone to accidents.

Note: the study did not find any significant differences between smokers who do and do not smoke while driving.

Conclusions

As the major international studies show, smoking while driving is one of the least distracting activities in which a driver can engage. The worst distractions are chatting with passengers, outside activity or using a mobile.

If smoking while driving was prohibited, what would be the consequences? Would drivers stop at the side of the motorway to enjoy a cigarette, potentially causing traffic problems and endangering their safety, and the safety of other road users? Would drivers continue to smoke as they drive while looking out for the police, instead of keeping their eyes on the road?

Drivers often say that smoking helps prevent drowsiness. As drowsiness is a major cause of accidents, a ban could conceivably result in to more accidents.

Forest accepts that drivers should not drive dangerously or drive without due care and attention, adding "smoking" to a list of distractions in the Highway Code is not warranted due to its relative insignificance as a driver distraction, and would cause more problems than it would solve.

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"Tobacco is not an illegal substance yet the government is persecuting a minority. I think that's a disgrace in a social democracy."

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