Children drive their parents to distraction

Parents who drive with young children in the back seat spend an average 18 per cent of driving time with their eyes off the road, Australian researchers have found.

The results indicate engaging with young children while driving could be a greater crash risk than mobile phone use, eating and drinking or interacting with front seat passengers.

A pilot study by the Monash University Accident Research Centre in Melbourne, in which 12 families with one to three young children were filmed driving for three weeks, found the parents took their eyes off the road an average of three minutes and 22 seconds in a 16-minute trip.

Study co-author Judith Charlton said that in 90 of 92 car trips filmed, drivers at some stage took their eyes off the road for more than two seconds, the point at which the risk of crashing increases exponentially.

Distracted activities included turning to look at the child, talking with the child, passing food and even playing.

''Drivers, when they are distracted by kids, are taking their eyes off the road for more than two seconds and that is considered to be potentially unsafe,'' Associate Professor Charlton said.

Unlike mobile phone use in cars, the effect of parents being distracted by children while driving had been little researched, perhaps because it is relatively normal behaviour, she said.

''The extent to which people are aware of it I am not sure, but it's one thing to be aware of it and it's another to be able to refrain from doing it when it's a child who might be in distress,'' she said.

In a study beginning next month Associate Professor Charlton and her research partner Dr Sjaan Koppel will analyse the prevalence of parental distraction behind the wheel and the associated crash risk. The study will include 50 families.

''In the first study we set up the car so that it had cameras that could capture the driver and what the kids were doing,'' Associate Professor Charlton said. ''In this new study we've taken that a step further, so we've also got the cars [set up] so we can see if the driver is distracted, and what impact is it having on their driving performance,'' she said.

''We can look at whether the driver is keeping true to his lane or drifting, whether they're driving faster or slower when distracted.''

Although the trial participants were aware they were being recorded, their behaviour became increasingly natural over the three weeks. At different times participants were filmed using mobile phones, eating and taking their hands off the steering wheel.

The only distracting behaviour they engaged in more often than interacting with their children was grooming, which accounted for 35 per cent of distracted activity. Dealing with children accounted for 12 per cent, followed by interacting with front seat passengers (9 per cent) and looking out the window (7 per cent).

A similar study, also by Monash researchers, this year found that inattentive driving caused more serious crashes than drunk driving.

-Fairfax Media Australia