A recent study found that 88 percent of people use their phones while operating motor vehicles. Distracted driving is one of the biggest concerns that safety advocates and government regulators have been grappling with since cell phones hit the market and were enhanced with texting and eventually iPhone-like smartphones. According to most experts, using a phone while driving is among the most dangerous activities a person can do while operating a motor vehicle
The Study: Findings and Warnings
Zendrive, an analytics company, found in its study that everyone uses their phone while driving. The trend isn’t limited to age, sex, ethnicity, education, or geographic location – everyone uses their phones while driving. Zendrive relied on sensor data from over three million drivers and about 5.6 billion driven miles for a total of 570 million trips to crunch these findings. The Zendrive study is the largest distracted driving study ever undertaken.
Zendrive found that 88 percent of people use their phones while driving. The average driver uses his or her phone for about 3.5 minutes per hour while driving. It’s easy to assume that three-and-a-half minutes isn’t a lot of time to be distracted per hour however it only takes about two seconds of distraction to increase the odds of crashing by 20 percent. For instance, in two seconds are a car traveling 35 mph can cross two basketball courts. Zendrive found that 3.5 minutes of distraction increases the total number of events per hour that could result in an accident by 105.
Dangers of Distracted Driving
Unfortunately, these findings are also supported by figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) which, in 2015, estimated that about 3,500 people were killed in distracted-driving-related collisions. Moreover, those calculations are two years old, undoubtedly as smartphone use increases, the total number of distracted drivers increased. According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans owned a smartphone in 2016, a 32 percent increase from 2011 when only 35 percent of people owned smartphones.
Finally, these figures represent a disturbing trend. For decades, traffic deaths were steadily decreasing with seatbelt laws, click or ticket campaigns, and improved safety features. However, in 2014-2015, traffic deaths rose seven percent (per NHTSA findings), the first increase in years. The increase coincides with the rise of smartphones and distracted driving. Smartphones and driving may undo decades of public health and safety triumphs. Finally, the 2015 NHTSA findings found that the largest increase among all crash-related factors was among distracted driving.
Challenges Facing Enforcement
Unlike seatbelts which are easy to track if they were used in an accident (people who wear them get distinct bruises), that is less true among smartphone users. People are de-incentivized to report that they were using a phone when they got into an accident. Additionally, distracted driving is still so new that many officers are not trained in identifying cell phone use as a cause of an accident.
There are many “types” of distracted driving from changing a radio station to using a cell phone. There is still no agree-upon methodology to track and report distracted driving events. Society and the government cannot devise coherent solutions until sufficient data is describing the problem.
Solutions: Legal and Cultural Approaches
Traffic deaths are preventable. Every driver can save lives by waiting to use their phone until they are done driving. They can also hand their phone to a passenger on long drives to handle any text or email issues that cannot wait. Finally, there are plenty of opportunities to pull over and respond to phone alerts.
Sadly this problem is still in its infancy, so there are few coherent government responses. Zendrive found that 16 states ban using handheld devices while operating a vehicle. However, the results of these bans are mixed. Zendrive also ranked the states from most-to-least distracted drivers. It found that states who ban using phones while driving are disproportionately in the least-distracted half of the country, the results are mixed. Ten states, including driving heavy-weights California and New York, are at the bottom, but six states with bans are also in the top, including Vermont which is the most distracted state in the study.
Moreover, Zendrive also ranked major metropolitan areas and found that Los Angeles is the most distracted city followed by Austin, Miami, and Philadelphia. Luckily, banned states metropolitan areas are also in the least distracted cities including New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
These findings indicate that there is no easy solution to distracted driving. The only real solution is likely a multi-generational battle similar to the anti-tobacco campaigns. Until the United States undergoes a cultural shift in which it is socially unacceptable to use a phone while driving, these numbers will continue to increase and so will the number of people injured or killed in distracted-driving related accidents.