Staying in ‘the zone’

A study of 250 SPAD incident reports in 2016/17 revealed that the most common errors occurred due to drivers being distracted or not paying attention to their tasks. Loss of attention and distractions can occur for several reasons, including boredom, low workload (underload), fatigue and loss of motivation.

Personal issues that go on inside our heads, such as bereavements or money issues, are internal sources of distraction which can affect us at any time. External distractions originate from outside our heads, such as noticing animals in a field or in-cab tasks like adjusting air cooling and heating systems.     

Understanding the factors that can affect your performance is the first step towards making your driving performance even more robust. But it is important to recognise that the limitations of human performance mean it will never be possible to eliminate all errors in observing and responding to signals.

Cognitive underload

The driver suffered a slip of attention on approach to the signal. The driver had little actions to take in respect of driving the train and stated that the “hypnotic effect” of the windscreen wipers may have contributed to their lowered state of attention” – SPAD investigation report.  RSSB has recently completed a project which addresses one of the causes of distractions and loss of attention: cognitive underload. For many years the rail industry has known that high mental or physical workload (or ‘overload’) can cause people to make mistakes, but there has been very little recognition of what happens at times when workload is low (underload). The red circle on the workload graph shows the effect underload can have on performance. 

Sometimes work isn’t demanding enough to keep people alert. Driving a train can involve long hours of repetitive work. It can involve long periods of running on greens, along the same routes, with the same hazards and indications, which can get monotonous. In these situations, our attention levels can drop, distractions become more common, and this can result in SPADs. These are normal feelings, but it’s important that you can spot when you begin to drift off and apply techniques to get yourself back into the zone. The project identified various practical techniques that can be used by train drivers to counter underload. These techniques can be found in the underload toolbox.

RED 54,‘Stay Focussed’, shows an example of a SPAD caused by underload. It also explains how non-technical skills can help us manage attention and distraction.

What can you do to stay focussed?

You can manage distraction and attention. RSSB’s underload toolbox shows how you can use non-technical skills (NTS) as a basis for this. NTS are social, cognitive and personal skills that can enhance the way you carry out technical skills, tasks and procedures. Here are some approaches you may find helpful: 

1.  Anticipating risk 

Anticipating risks is a key NTS when managing loss of attention and distraction. First, establish if you are in a situation that can lead to distractions and lapses in attention. This could be:

  • Driving on long routes on green aspects with very little going on
  • Being held at red signals for long periods of time with little to do
  • Driving repetitive routes with little variation and stopping at the same pattern of stations
  • Approaching the end of a journey and beginning to think about your next journey, your PNB, heading home or even an upcoming holiday
  • Starting a shift when you’re had issues at home which are playing on your mind
  • Driving a section of track with several external distractions, such as a golf course. 

Consider your own routes: Do you have scenarios that are similar to these? If so, you might find that your mind starts to wander, you may be running on auto-pilot, asking yourself questions such as “what aspect was my last signal?” Identify these high-risk areas so that you can take steps to stay alert, such as the use of risk triggered commentary (RTC).

2.  Using personal protective strategies

For years, train drivers have used ‘personal protection strategies’ – these are techniques drivers use to help keep themselves alert and minimise distractions. The underload toolbox provides a breakdown of 19 techniques, which have been identified by train drivers, for train drivers. Each technique tells you what it is, how to use it, why other drivers find it effective, the risks and the constraints.

Not all techniques will work for everyone, as people work in different ways. For example, RTC might work for one driver, but another driver might find it distracting. Try out a few techniques, and adopt those that suit your driving style and personality. However, be aware of the potential downsides associated with any techniques you’re thinking of using.

RSSB has produced a video below which provides an overview of some of the underload toolbox techniques.

3. Being prepared and organised 

Being prepared and organised is a key NTS, though it may not immediately spring to mind when considering attention and distraction. However, having the right tools and equipment, in good working order and easily accessible, is important for a good shift. Being prepared for work by being well rested, well hydrated and with personal issues managed - either through discussion with a manager or via your own coping strategies - can help maintain concentration, information retention and other cognitive skills. This can include arriving on time for the start of a shift, with the correct uniform, reading the schedule, work notices or instructions, and noting any changes to what was expected.

South Western Railway’s ‘Keep it Out the Cab’ safety video below raises awareness of the risks of being distracted by an upcoming holiday, which is a common cause of distraction during the summer. The engaging video provides good practice strategies that address the NTS areas detailed above. 


The Underload Toolbox
Haven’t found what you’re looking for?
Get in touch with our Principal Human Factors Specialist for further information.
Philippa Murphy
Tel: 020 3142 5641
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