How new technology, evolving social norms and human nature have intersected to create a public health crisis, and what you can do about it
Deaths attributed to motor vehicle accidents involving pedestrians alone were 41% higher in 2018 than in 2008.
What's changed? In a word, Distraction.
While advances in technology have made cars safer, there is more competition than ever before for a driver's attention.
CDC statistics show that 9% of all motor vehicle accidents involve at least one distracted driver. A World Health Organization report concludes that cellular phone use while driving is correlated with a 400 percent increase in the likelihood of being involved in a car accident, while several large-scale studies conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech found that texting while driving increased the chances of a crash by up to 20 times.
According to the NHTSA, 9 people are killed every day in the United States in distracted driving accidents, with 1,000 more seriously injured, while crash data from 2010, (when vehicle fatalities were actually 25% lower) indicate that injuries and property damage from distracted driving accidents cost over $129 billion in that year alone.
Thirty years ago, the biggest distractions drivers faced were the radio, fast food and perhaps the family dog.
Today, that list has grown to include:
Certain activities, such as listening to loud music, might only cause one type of distraction. Others, like replying to a text message, can involve two or even all three types of distraction, simultaneously interfering with the visual, manual and cognitive aspects of driving, and dramatically increasing the risk of a crash.
According to the NTHSA, sending or reading a text message takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 5 seconds. That's long enough for a car traveling at 55 miles per hour to cover the entire length of a football field.
Of course many basic activities that were commonplace long before cellular phones continue to pose a distraction risk to drivers and those around them, including reading, eating, putting on makeup, talking to passengers, tuning the radio, and unrestrained pets in the vehicle.
With regard to modern mobile technology distractions, while it's estimated that cellular phone use is the common causal factor in at least 27% of all automobile accidents in the United States, and many of the laws and public initiatives intended to help reduce the incidence of distracted driving focus on reducing the use of internet-enabled mobile phones while driving, many modern automobiles themselves come equipped with a host of distracting high-tech features.
A 2017 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety comparison of available statistics on the distraction risk to drivers of common tasks involving onboard and handheld electronics found that programming a vehicle navigation system was the most visually distracting.
A 2018 AAA study of the visual and cognitive demands required by driver interaction with "infotainment" systems built into 40 late model vehicles found that over 70% of these systems made "high" to "very high" visual and cognitive demands on drivers.
Although data clearly show that not interacting with any mobile technology while driving is safest, the 2018 study did conclude that in several cases, the third-party Android Auto and Apple CarPlay applications were less distracting than the auto manufacturers native interface.
Most Americans seem to be aware that distracted driving is dangerous. According to The AAA Traffic Safety Culture Index, 81.1% of respondents said that drivers exchanging text messages or email is a serious threat to their safety, and that they find such behavior personally unacceptable.
40% of respondents in the same study, however, reported engaging in those activities. A CDC survey found that over 30% of drivers who responded had read or sent a text or email message while driving during the previous 30 days, and nearly 70% had talked on a cellular phone while driving.
In an NHTSA survey, respondents reported deciding whether to answer a phone call or read a text or email message while driving primarily based on factors such as the perceived importance of the message or the identity of the sender, but rarely based on personal safety or legal constraints.
A slight majority said they would never use a cellular phone while driving in bad weather, but less than 6% indicated that they would never do so with a child in the car or in a school zone.
While anecdotal claims about relative proficiency at "multitasking" may seem to be commonplace, neuroscience has repeatedly demonstrated that there is essentially no such thing.
Research from over a decade ago using functional magnetic resonance imaging as well as more recent research show that rather than performing multiple tasks simultaneously, the human brain simply switches back and forth between tasks.
When the brain does switch tasks there is a "switching cost" - a slight delay while the brain reorients to the other task. Developmental biologist, researcher and author of "Brain Rules" John Medina underscores the mythological nature of multitasking with attention, and found that drivers talking on cellular phones are a half second slower to brake in an emergency, miss a substantial proportion of visual cues, and tend to maintain an inconsistent follow distance from the vehicle ahead.
Many drivers may simply overestimate their own abilities. The NHTSA found that 20-30% of drivers between 18 and 34 years old reported that texting does not affect their ability to drive.
According to driving analytics company Zendrive's annual report, one in every twelve drivers can legitimately be classified as a "phone addict", with a psychological dependence on the instant mental gratification from receiving calls, texts and internet notifications.
In fact, developers now intentionally build addictive triggers into smartphone apps that can stimulate some of the same brain activity that is generated by drug use.
Phone addicts spend up to a three times larger proportion of their drive time than the average driver using mobile devices while behind the wheel. Zendrive's report found that phone addicts have their eyes off the road 28% of the time they're behind the wheel, and forecasted that one in every five drivers will be a phone addict by 2022.
Hands-free devices, including phones with wireless headphones and Bluetooth headsets as well as onboard infotainment and navigation systems, can free a driver's hands and reduce visual distractions, but they cannot eliminate cognitive distraction.
Research from Queensland University of Technology found that talking on a hands-free mobile device is just as distracting as talking on a handheld unit.
A 2017 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analysis of over 1,700 teen driver crash videos taken from vehicle event-recorders found that distraction was a factor in nearly 60% of crashes studied, while the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found in the same year that nearly 40% of high school student drivers surveyed reported sending a text or email while behind the wheel.
This last figure is on par with the percentage of adults who report emailing or texting while driving, but unfortunately, aside from their relative inexperience as drivers, the CDC survey also uncovered various other heightened risk factors for teen drivers that can magnify the risk and/or magnitude of a distracted-driving accident, including that they were:
Individuals who are on the clock while behind the wheel are often connected via cellular phones and other technology to their employers and coworkers, and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of work-related deaths in the United States. Between 2003 and 2012 there were almost 19,000 work-related fatal car accidents.
To reduce the risk of employees being involved in distracted driving accidents, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Safety Council suggest that employers institute clear written policies & penalties banning texting, hand-held phone and hands-free device use while driving a company vehicle. They also recommend that employees be explicitly required to pull over if calling, texting or using a smart device, and educated about the risks associated with distracted driving.
An NSC study found that only 1% of companies that ban or restrict device use while driving experienced decreased productivity. On the other hand, a single distracted driving accident on company time has cost as much as $21 million.
Few federal laws impact distracted driving directly, but various legislation and policies have attempted to adress the distracted driving public health crisis indirectly, including:
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act created incentive programs that allow state governments access to federal grants in order to create, bolster, or reinvigorate programs designed to curb incidences of distracted driving at the state level. States are eligible to apply for a Distracted Driving Grant if they have enacted and are enforcing:
In addition to active legislation, several government agencies have created programs designed to combat distracted driving through education and outreach. These include:
In addition to possible fines and citations, drivers who engage in distracted driving may be subject to civil liability for injuries and damages caused by an accident. In fact, a New Jersey court of appeal precedent seems to suggest that you could be held liable simply for sending a text message to someone you know is driving.
Auto insurance carriers protect policyholders who cause distracted driving accidents, but such an accident could result in future denied coverage requiring the purchase of expensive high-risk auto insurance. Simply getting ticketed for texting while driving can result in a rate increase of as much as 45%.
If you were injured due to the negligence of a distracted driver, you have a legal right to compensation for your medical care and the other impacts your injuries may have had on your life, such as lost wages, property damage and decreased earnings and/or earning potential.
If your injuries and the associated cost of treatment and the financial and other impacts on your life are relatively minor, you may decide to simply file a claim with your auto insurance carrier, and let them deal with the negligent driver's insurer.
You may also be best served by relying on your insurance company if the fault or negligence that caused the accident is unclear or would be hard to demonstrate, although in some cases if your insurance company ultimately ends up paying your claim, your rates could increase.
If your injuries are serious, you should consult with an experienced attorney specializing in vehicle accident claims, who will pursue a settlement from an insurer, or in cases where an acceptable settlement can't be negotiated, pursue your case in court.
Educational resources about the risks, consequences and best-practices associated with distracted driving.