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The distracted driving epidemic

It's more than just mobile devices vying for your attention

Created date

October 13th, 2016
Educating drivers about distracted driving is an ongoing process.

Educating drivers about distracted driving is an ongoing process.

You’re out for a drive and the car in front of you slows down. It swerves, moving erratically from one side of the lane to the other. It could be a drunk driver. It could also be a distracted driver—someone who’s texting or searching a playlist or looking for an address stored on a mobile device. 

Most often, distracted driving involves mobile devices, especially among younger, more inexperienced drivers.  Fifty-one percent of 18- to 34-year-olds text and drive, while only 7% of drivers 65 and older text and drive. 

“As we rely on our cell phones more and more in our everyday lives, we seem to be kidding ourselves in thinking that they don’t affect our driving,” says Rhonda L. Craft, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety. “Crashes are up. The scientific evidence is solid. The dangers are real, and they apply to all of us. We need to silence the distractions.”

3,000 deaths per year

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that distracted driving is a factor in at least 3,000 deaths per year, though the actual number is likely much higher. Drivers who take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds can double their risk of being in a crash.

“Our investigators can determine if speed, alcohol, or drugs were a factor in a collision,” says California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow. “However, it is difficult to determine when distracted driving is the cause. Most people do not declare that they were distracted before they crashed. Therefore, we know distracted driving statistics are underreported.”

If you text and drive, your eyes are off the road for about five seconds. If you are traveling at 55 mph, that’s like driving across a football field blindfolded. 

Other distractions

While mobile devices have made distracted driving much more commonplace, they are hardly the only thing vying for drivers’ attention. 

A driver in Farmington, Maine, was momentarily distracted by her dog. Failing to notice that traffic was at a standstill, she slammed into the vehicle in front of her, setting off a multicar collision. The vehicles suffered extensive damage, but fortunately, the people sustained only minor injuries. 

When hot coffee spilled from a travel mug, a Maryland driver reacted by swerving across the double yellow line. The head-on collision that ensued killed an 18-year-old man.

A Michigan mother turned her attention from the road to her children in the back seat and failed to stop at a stop sign. Instead, she plowed through the intersection, causing a crash that tragically killed her 2-year-old daughter.  

“A distraction is anything that causes a driver to take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, or their mind off their primary task of driving safely,” said Doug Smith, a senior vice president at Erie Insurance. 

Last year, Erie Insurance conducted a survey about distracted driving. “Our survey found drivers, unfortunately, are engaging in a wide range of distracting and potentially dangerous behaviors,” says Smith.

Some of the distracted behaviors noted in the survey were fairly commonplace such as smoking or singing to the radio. A few uncommon behaviors were also noted. People reported flossing their teeth, curling their eyelashes, and putting in their contact lenses all while behind the wheel.

One fact about distracted driving behavior may surprise you. In 2013, Erie Insurance analyzed police data and found that daydreaming was the most fatal distracted driving behavior.

Driving behavior change

Some states have turned to legislation to help curb this disturbing trend. A bill currently under consideration in New Jersey seeks to ban any driver activity not directly related to the act of driving, including eating and drinking. Similar laws have already been passed in states like Utah and Maine. 

Many safe-driving advocates, however, believe this is one issue that can’t be tackled legislatively, favoring widespread and consistent driver education instead.   

“Lives are at stake on our highways. The NHTSA wants to drive behavior change, stop bad habits, and encourage safe driving,” says NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind. “People need to understand the potential price of distracted driving. The cost of a ticket is nothing compared to the irrevocable cost of taking someone’s life.”

“Distracted driving is a completely preventable cause of death or injury on our roadways. We believe education can be as important as enforcement in addressing this problem,” says Farrow.

“Driving a car is one of the riskiest activities any of us undertake on a daily basis and it is especially dangerous for our most novice drivers—teens,” says Kelly Browning, Ph.D., executive director of Impact Teen Driving. “For the first time in over 50 years, traffic deaths have increased 8% despite decades of vehicle design improvements and traffic safety advancements. Simply put, we need to change our behavior behind the wheel. We need to keep both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road, and our minds on driving. Focus on the road ahead to get to where you’re going safely—we all have loved ones counting on us.”