Understanding the Anatomy of Distracted Driving

In its purest form, distracted driving can be described as anything that takes your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel or your mind off the drive. Chances are in some variation; we have all fallen victim to some form of distracted driving. Stealing a quick peek at a text during a stop light, changing a song while on the highway or wiping spilled coffee up in the cupholder. While these little acts seem harmless, all it takes is a split second for the 3,000-pound missile you’re driving to be a dangerous weapon.  

Checking a text for 5 seconds means that at 90 km/h, you’ve travelled the length of a football field blindfolded. Scary, isn’t it? 

While we could do the complete rundown of statistics on distracted driving, it’s important to take it one step deeper and understand the three components of distracted driving and being conscious of them so we can collectively be better drivers. 

Here is a breakdown of the three different classified types of distracted driving: Visual, Manual, and Cognitive. 


Visual distractions are exactly as they sound like. It occurs anytime a driver will look at anything other than the road. This can be something related to checking on the kids in the backseat, looking at the GPS on the front dashboard or looking at your phone. Anything that takes a driver away from consistently assessing their surroundings on the road.   


Manual distractions happen when a driver takes one or both hands off the wheel for any reason. When the hands come off of the ten and two position to pick up your to-go meal on the from seat, picking up your coffee from the cupholder, smoking a cigarette, punching a location into the GPS, or attempting to rescue something from your purse, wallet, or briefcase. All of these behaviours are compounded and result in a manual distraction when driving. 


Cognitive or mental distraction is when a driver's mind isn't focused on driving. It happens to the best of us and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t day dreamed while on the road. The mind naturally wanders, and it is absolutely critical to be sharp and remain focused. Cognitive distractions occur when you’re talking to another passenger or thinking about an incident at work, listening to a podcast, thinking about an upcoming conversation you have to have with a family member, or virtually anything that allows your mind to drift. Feeling preoccupied by other issues means you’re still distracted – so you won’t be as alert, or as safe. 

What is legal that you can do:

You are allowed to use hands-free wireless communications devices with an earpiece, lapel button or Bluetooth. You can view GPS display screens as long as they are built into your vehicle’s dashboard or securely mounted on the dashboard. 

What is illegal that you cannot do:

When you are stopped in traffic or at a red light, it is illegal to:

  • use a phone or other hand-held wireless communication device to text or dial – you can only touch a device to call 911 in an emergency
  • use a hand-held electronic entertainment device, such as a tablet or portable gaming console
  • view display screens unrelated to driving, such as watching a video
  • program a GPS device, except by voice commands.

Protect yourself and others on the road 

Other actions such as eating, drinking, applying makeup, smoking, reading and reaching for objects are not technically part of Ontario’s distracted driving law – but if it is deemed reckless, you can still be charged with careless or dangerous driving.

Know what counts as distracted driving – and the penalties you could face for it – before you get behind the wheel.