By on July 22, 2011

The Governor’s Highway Safety Association has reviewed a number of studies on distracted driving, and its report [PDF here] shows a number of disturbing findings. A few of the highlights (or is that lowlights?):

  • At least one driver was reported to have been distracted in 15% to 30% of crashes at all levels, minor to fatal. The proportion of distracted drivers may be greater because investigating officers may not detect or record all distractions. In many crashes it is not known whether the distractions caused or contributed to the crash.
  • In almost 80% of all crashes and 65% of near-crashes the driver was looking away from the forward roadway just before the incident and that secondary task distraction contributed to 22% of the crashes and near-crashes
  • about two-thirds of all drivers reported using a cell phone while driving; about one-third used a cell phone routinely. In observational studies during daylight hours in 2009, between 7% and 10% of all drivers were using a cell phone… about one-eighth of all drivers reported texting while driving. In observational studies during daylight hours in 2009, fewer than 1% of all drivers were observed to be texting.
  • Cognitive distractions by themselves – thinking about something other than driving, without any manual or visual distraction – can affect driving performance. Two recent studies reinforce the conclusion that distractions affect the mind, not just the eyes, ears, or hands
  • [Two] studies found that crash risk was about four times greater when using a cell phone. Hands-free phones did not appear to be any safer than hand-held phones.
  • In the only study of texting bans, HLDI studied their effect on collision claims using the same methods as their 2009 study of cell phone laws. They concluded that texting bans did not reduce collision claims. In fact, there appears to have been a small increase in claims in the states enacting texting bans compared to neighboring states… there is no evidence that cell phone or texting laws have reduced crashes.

If you’re at all interested in a relatively concise (50 pages) overview of the state of distracted driving research, this report is well worth a download. Ultimately, though, the report offers more challenges than easy answers, as it largely debunks the notion that increased enforcement or hands-free laws make much of a difference in the problem. [via AutoObserver]

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45 Comments on “GHSA Surveys The Science Of Distraction, Finds 15%-30% Of Crashes Involve Distracted Drivers...”


  • avatar

    If texting bans don’t reduce claims, it’s because they aren’t being enforced–which I can easily believe. Here in Massachusetts, we have a recently enacted ban, but I still see plenty of people texting, and I suspect the cops are still concentrating on people who are going over the speed limit.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      Despite all of this, it’s worth noting this comment on page 4 of the study: “There is no evidence that cell phone or texting bans have reduced crashes.”

      These laws don’t work, and there isn’t much evidence to support the position that removing a phone from a driver causes them to otherwise improve their driving. It’s not as if a texting addict can be expected to become a model driver once the phone has been removed. Apathy and limited attention spans can’t be fixed with a law.

      • 0 avatar
        redav

        The article clearly states “[Two] studies found that crash risk was about four times greater when using a cell phone.”

        I agree that the present laws don’t reduce accidents. However, I see no evidence that the risk disparity between using & not using a cell phone is actually due to the type of person who uses/doesn’t use a cell phone and not the actual use of it.

        Perhaps taking a cell phone away won’t make someone a better driver, but I can pretty much guarantee that giving a driver a cell phone will make him a worse driver.

        It would be very interesting to see what would happen if cars had coatings that blocked cell phone signals so there was no reception inside the car. Once drivers accept that their phones will not work inside the car, what then happens to the accident rate?

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        I can pretty much guarantee that giving a driver a cell phone will make him a worse driver.

        I don’t see how you could guarantee any such thing. The fatality rate among phone users is lower than it is for those who aren’t.

        Drivers who use phones drive more slowly, make fewer lane changes and leave more distance. Since these choices correlate with safer, defensive driving, it isn’t at all surprising that they have lower fatality rates.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        Pch101:

        While it may be true that fatality rates are lower for cell phone users(for the very reasons you cite above), that doesn’t necessarily imply that drivers who use cell phones (and other similar technologies) are not classifiable as high risk drivers. Cell phone users could still be involved in more accidents (which would need to be shown, of course), but that their driving behavior simply results in fewer fatalities amongst the kinds of accidents in which they are involved. Put simply, lower fatality rates need not imply lower accident rates, and if cell phone users are indeed at higher risk of having an accident, then surely accidents rates would seem to be just as plausible a metric for judging driver quality as fatality rates (at least in certain respects).

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        While it may be true that fatality rates are lower for cell phone users(for the very reasons you cite above), that doesn’t necessarily imply that drivers who use cell phones (and other similar technologies) are not classifiable as high risk drivers

        Sure it does. Fatality data is generally used a proxy for making overall assessments of automotive safety. And in any case, the most important public policy issue is that of keeping people from killing each other.

        I think that you’re stretching because you have a visceral dislike of phones and assume that they must be a problem. But the real problem with driving is that humans are the ones who are doing it.

        You’ll notice that advances in public safety have been achieved with passive safety and devices that reduce the human element to driving. There is a reason why most of the advanced research is being dedicated toward doing more to automate the driving process. It isn’t a coincidence — people are the problem, not the solution.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        Pch101:

        I certainly admit to wanting to keep a certain critical distance from cellphones and and other similar technologies, particularly as relates to driving (and for other ‘quality of life’ reasons as well), and I don’t deny that humans are at least part of the problem. But I would also argue (as I have done so here in the past) that technologies in general (and obviously this includes cell phones) are not neutral elements in human life to be used or not used in a purely instrumental, disinterested manner. Instead technologies like cell phones encourage the widespread proliferation of certain behaviors associated with their overall function (and I say encourage in something like a statistical sense, not determine as some people wrongly assume). Put simply, if cell phones or texting devices are present in a given place or circumstance, people will be inclined to use them whether they are driving or not (just as people will tend to watch a TV that’s on in a room or restaurant, whether they are interested in the program or not). You seem to view technologies like cell phones as value neutral, but I would challenge this and would argue that the mere presence of a cell phone or texting device in a car (or anywhere for that matter) is going to encourage its use (in a higher than chance sense), and hence be an added distraction for any driver. Of course I’m not suggesting that they be banned (they have already become too deeply integrated into social, political, and economic life for that), but we should be aware of the kinds of influence that technologies like these can and do have.

        I would also challenge your claim that “the most important public policy is to keep people from killing each other.” More fundamental and widespread is the need for policies that keep people from causing undue harm to others, and this would include the possibility of automobile accidents that may result in chronic injuries, disabilities, financial hardship, as well as mortality.

        Still, a good discussion and I look forward to your reply.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        You seem to view technologies like cell phones as value neutral

        Not really, no. I’m addressing the fundamental misunderstanding that most people have about the nature of traffic safety.

        In a word, accidents are caused by risk taking. Some drivers are more risk averse than others (either through aggression or a lack of awareness). Over time, the risk takers will crash more often than those who take less risk.

        Each driver has a level of risk that is acceptable to himself or herself. They will adjust their behavior to match their comfort with risk.

        When people use phones, they change their other driving behaviors to accommodate the risks created by their phone usage. When they hang up, they revert to other risky behaviors to make up for the risk that was eliminated when the phone call was disconnected. The comfort level drives the behavior.

        But in any case, their overall risk profile is probably roughly the same. If anything, the crash data suggests that they may be even increasing their risk aversion when on the phone, which is a positive for traffic safety. The phone may act as a sort of pacifier, calming them down and distracting them from even worse behaviors.

        If you want to improve driver safety, then you need to decrease the risk-taking drivers’ tolerance for risk. Phone laws don’t work because they don’t address this problem of risk taking — eliminating a phone will not change the personality of the risk taker, just shifts the sources of risks around.

        In terms of enforcement, the most effective laws target intoxication, because it boosts risk taking, and graduated licensing, because young people tend to have excessive tolerances for risk.

        The controlled studies in simulators are faulty, because they don’t adjust for real world behavior and adjustments in risk taking that drivers make on the street. Such studies create two identical scenarios, one with a phone and one without, and then conclude that the phone was bad because the situation was made worse. The fact that the real world data produces the opposite results tells you that there is a problem with the simulator studies, not with the real world.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        Good points. I guess I’m still not sure whether risk taking tendencies are constant in persons throughout various circumstances (as a stable, fixed feature of a person’s character, as it were), or whether they may be altered variously by the material, social and other conditions within which individuals may be situated. I think I lean more towards the latter view, but don’t have any firm position one way or the other.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        I’m still not sure whether risk taking tendencies are constant in persons throughout various circumstances (as a stable, fixed feature of a person’s character, as it were), or whether they may be altered variously by the material, social and other conditions within which individuals may be situated

        It’s pretty much a given that it varies based upon age and gender. There’s a reason why premiums are high for the young, and drop as they get older.

        I suspect that it’s also cultural, but I have no study to conclusively prove that, and I doubt that I ever will. (That would be hard to prove, and controversial if true.)

    • 0 avatar
      SP

      Well, it says in the article that, from general observation, less than 1% of drivers were found to be texting at any given time. So it’s not easy to catch someone in the act.

  • avatar
    newcarscostalot

    Hey, where can I get one of those waffle makers? Every car should come with one of those as a standard feature lol

  • avatar
    newcarscostalot

    Hey, where can I get one of those waffle makers? Every car should come with one of those as a standard feature.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      JC Whitney Catalog. You’ll find lots of 12 volt accessories or just by one of the cars with a power outlet like a Vibe or a Matrix. Although household waffle makers are usually pretty amp intensive.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I don’t know how I ever lived without mine. With a little whipped cream and strawberries, it really brightens up the morning commute! I’d prefer an omelette, but scrambling the eggs while you’re driving can get a little messy.

    • 0 avatar
      newcarscostalot

      I would get one of those, but I see it ending badly…

  • avatar
    GS650G

    I see Jack is making breakfast again…..

    File this story under Really? No Kidding?

    It stands to reason of your paying attention adn aware of what you are doing you are most likely not going to run into anyone. If you’re not distracted then what are you?

  • avatar
    Apollo

    “[Two] studies found that crash risk was about four times greater when using a cell phone. Hands-free phones did not appear to be any safer than hand-held phones.”

    I’ve read this before, and it doesn’t intuitively make sense. If we’ve got two driver’s talking on the phone, one hands-free and the other hand-held, they may both be equally distracted, but a distracted driver with two available hands should be able to avoid accidents marginally better than a distracted driver with only one available hand.

    But I’ve realized what explains the results: no one drives with two hands. If you’re only driving with one hand, it doesn’t really matter what you do with the other hand (sit on it, hold a phone … honestly, I don’t know what people who drive with one hand do with their other hand) should be irrelevant; it will be the distraction level that will determine your ability to avoid a crash. As for those of us who drive we two hands, we’re probably statistically insignificant, but even if we’re not I’d wager generally more attentive drivers who would not be as affected by phone use as the average one-hander.

    • 0 avatar

      The thing that actually explains the results is that people who are on the phone aren’t paying as much attention to the road, and the number of hands on the wheel is irrelevant.

      • 0 avatar
        Apollo

        As an honest question, are you aware of any study showing that the number of hands on the wheel is irrelevant for undistracted driving? It may simply be that the number of hands on the wheel is irrelevant to avoiding collisions – if you can’t avoid it by thinking ahead or using the breaks, the marginal difference in steering ability may be insignificant.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        It may simply be that the number of hands on the wheel is irrelevant to avoiding collisions – if you can’t avoid it by thinking ahead or using the breaks, the marginal difference in steering ability may be insignificant.

        It’s a common myth that more control and skill lead to better driving.

        It’s actually closer to the opposite. Humans cause most of the problems. The best solution to driver safety would involve figuring out a way that a machine could drive the car, instead of having humans having the ability to screw things up.

        The overall accident data shows that phone users crash less than average. In addition, naturalistic studies show that drivers leave more distance, drive more slowly and make fewer lane changes while on the phone.

        So the irony is that phones may actually improve driver safety, not because phone usage is particularly great but because phone users drive more aggressively when they’re off the phone.

        In an ideal world, drivers would avoid distraction and drive less aggressively at the same time. But in the real world, they don’t.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    ” there is no evidence that cell phone or texting laws have reduced crashes.”

    Not surprising since there was no evidence that their use increased crashes, and therefore no reason to enact the laws in the first place.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      According to this report, two studies do show a significant link between cell phone use and crashes. I used to have a job that required a fair amount of somewhat repetitive labor that I could almost do with my eyes closed. It’s amazing how many of my coworkers couldn’t do it and carry on a conversation at the same time. The thought of them driving with a cell phone scares the crap out of me.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    This is completely irrelevant to the story, but what is that secondary “gear shift” looking thing? 4×4 selection?

    I think that the incidents of texting and accidents has gone on a slight uptick since the laws were enacted because people are more concerned with hiding the fact that they are doing it so they don’t get a ticket. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been driving and the only thing I see of the person behind me, I do constantly scan my mirrors, was the persons part (no eyes, no glasses, just hair). It’s usually at this point that I move over to another lane.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    “thinking about something other than driving, without any manual or visual distraction – can affect driving performance. ”

    Like letting your mind wander back to that stripper in your lap last night.
    On I-90 in Biloxi MS a vendor sold bikinis right on the roadside next to the beach. Babe’s would whip them on right in full view.
    Lot’s of tire marks and car debris at that intersection.

  • avatar
    Selektaa

    Can someone explain to me what’s going on there on the console? It looks every bit like the car has an automatic and a manual gearshift. WTF is that?

  • avatar
    ZekeToronto

    My theory (and I swear this is not based on personal experience) is that in states and provinces with bans in place, people are still texting while driving … they’re just being more surreptitious about it … i.e. holding their devices lower (and more out of sight) thus having to take their eyes off the road for even longer periods of time … and creating even greater danger.

    Oh and it should be obvious that the right hand “shifter” is the four wheel drive mode selector. C’mon people … never been in a part-time 4WD before?

  • avatar
    Truckducken

    It’s still legal to hold a burning object in my hand while driving, isn’t it?

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      Only if the burning object is a lethal carcinogen that’s loaded with nicotine. If the burning object is a natural, non-lethal one that is much less dangerous and contains THC, it’s still illegal.

      Bonus: In certain parts of the south, it’s the custom to hold the perfectly legal burning object out like a trophy.

      • 0 avatar
        SunnyvaleCA

        You can’t do that in California in the presence of minors! Amazing! We have a law for everything now.

        http://tobaccoanalysis.blogspot.com/2007/10/california-bans-smoking-in-cars-with.html

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    yeah, keep putting more distractions in cars, great time to be a body shop owner! Today in my travels I saw 3 different bumper to bumper collisions with at least 4 cars involved in each. That’s 12 cars to the body shop

  • avatar
    Russycle

    So how about this: Get in a collision, police pull your cell phone records to see if it was in use at the time of the wreck. If it was, you get a hefty fine, with a bonus for texting.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      That’s a start.

      For drivers whose clear error causes maiming or death, a modest jail sentence would be nice.

      A $150 fine for a “Failing to Yield” incident that cause someone to never walk again (without a cane) is not justice. It’s a joke. Such jokes are routine…

  • avatar
    Sutures

    Unfortunately, the only way to get rid of distracted driving is to remove the distraction of driving… and distressingly, that is the way we seem to be headed.

  • avatar
    Astor

    I had a mid to late ’80s Subaru GL sedan and it didn’t come with a waffle iron. I think the guy I bought it from kept it for himself…ripoff!

    I’d like to see the “distracted driving” accident statistics start logging what kind of transmission the car that caused the accident had. Maybe it’s overly simplistic, but I sometimes wonder if people would be generally more involved in driving and pay more attention if more people drove a stick shift. At least a little bit.

  • avatar
    segar925

    Texting and cell phone use behind the wheel is becoming more of a problem. From my observations, 90% of the time when somebody’s all over the road or driving too slow, it’s because they are on the phone or texting. As a motorcycle operator for 40 years, these people scare the hell out of me. If I’m ever involved in another accident, the first thing I’ll ask my lawyer to do is to subpoena the other party’s cell phone records.

  • avatar
    segar925

    As a motorcycle rider for 40 years, I am more concerned than ever about cell phones and people texting behind the wheel. This kind of distracted driving is the biggest hazard on the road today.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    I’ve seen some pretty amazing stuff in my commute home. Used to see a guy in a slightly battered Kia Sephia practicing his trumpet while driving. A gal once in slow traffic was found to be reading her book, propped on the steering wheel and bopping to her music in her seat and didn’t notice that traffic had sped up and was STILL going at best 15-20 miles an hour without any awareness of the world around her. People I think not getting her attention by passively not tooting their horns and would just get around the dingbat. She was driving a battered late 90’s Toyota Camry if I remember right.

    and to top it off (not all on the same day however) I saw a near miss when a white Honda Civic veered across 3 lanes of traffic on I-90 to barely make an off ramp to Rainier Ave S, NB and causing some poor driver in a late 80’s Sentra to slam on the brakes to skid several feet to avoid the Civic and the Civic driver as he sailed down the off ramp onto Rainier Ave, nearly missed the bumpers at the end of the guardrails himself, pulled over to the next lane to his left on on Rainier Ave, I pulled along side and he was texting, or at least looking at his phone at any rate. He looked to be mid 20’s to at best early 30’s and I just wanted to throttle his throat for nearly causing not one, but perhaps 2 accidents by waiting at the lat minute to get off the highway.

  • avatar
    Robert Fahey

    “Cognitive distraction” eh?

    Cogito ergo boom.

  • avatar
    Corky Boyd

    Where on earth did you get that picture?

    It just goes to prove here are things even the Japanese haven’t thought of. I’m still trying to figure how you get a 1500 watt waffle maker to operate from a lighter socket. That’s over 120 amps on a 12 volt system. That’s really heavy duty.

    Clever these Americans!

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