By now, everyone agrees that distracted driving is a serious problem. What everyone might not agree on, however, is what constitutes "distracted driving" in the first place -- or the degree to which it's causing accidents on U.S. roads. A new study aims to address some of those discrepancies, and we're sorry to say, its findings are pretty grim.
The study was overseen by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit organization that represents highway safety offices in every U.S. state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The GHSA took a long, thorough look at data published in over 350 scientific papers published between 2000 and 2011, then compiled that data into one 50-page document entitled Distracted Driving: What Research Shows and What States Can Do.
If you'd like to skim through the entire report, it's available as a free PDF download. If you're pressed for time, though -- perhaps because you need to bang out another dozen text messages? -- we've taken the liberty of summarizing some of the study's high points:
1. There are four basic types of distractions: visual (e.g. looking away from the road), auditory (e.g. listening to something that's unrelated to driving), manual (e.g. fiddling with something other than the steering wheel or gear shift, like a radio or mobile phone), and cognitive (e.g. thinking about something other than driving).
2. Most major distractions involve at least two of those factors.
3. Shockingly, the majority of drivers admit to being distracted between 25% and 50% of the time they're behind the wheel.
4. Roughly 1/3 of all drivers regularly use a mobile phone while driving.
5. Roughly 1 in 8 drivers have said that they text and drive.
6. Between 15% and 30% of drivers involved in auto accidents have admitted to being distracted (and the figure may actually be higher due to reporting inconsistencies).
7. While texting is almost certainly more dangerous than talking on a cell phone, the GHSA study insists that "there is no conclusive evidence on whether hands-free cell phone use is less risky than hand-held use." (That's a point we've made before.)
8. Laws prohibiting talking and texting from mobile phones result in reductions of those activities immediately after the laws go into effect, but there's no sign that they have any long-term impact or that they reduce the total number of crashes.
Despite point #8, the GHSA recommends that states continue to implement anti-talk/text laws, but stresses that unless those laws are regularly enforced, they'll do no good. The organization also suggests that employers implement their own policies to deter distracted driving. (We can think of an app or two that might help.) Finally, the GHSA says that low-tech solutions like rumble strips can prevent accidents, too.
As telematics systems improve, and as collision-avoidance and vehicle-to-vehicle technology become commonplace, we hope to see distracted driving become a more manageable problem. For now, though, the burden lays with us, the drivers. We have to take responsibility for our actions and put away the phones while driving -- and encourage our kids, co-workers, and spouses to do the same. Something to consider before you begin that long summer road trip with the family.