As we’ve reported in the past, the death toll on US roads keeps increasing despite ever-safer vehicles. And people are overwhelmingly to blame; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculates that 97 percent of all fatal crashes are due to human error. One factor in all this unsafe road behavior is distracted driving, and the past few weeks have seen my inbox bombarded with new studies on the topic.
After a while, a deluge like that becomes hard to ignore, so I figured it was time to sit down and read through them. And the findings reveal that drivers aren’t really getting any better about focusing on the road.
The various reports use a number of different methodologies: combing through NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Report System (FARS), data collected from smartphone apps, plus surveys of drivers and companies. So taken together, they ought to give us a decent picture of the problem. As we’ll see, however, you can infer very different things depending on how you look at the data, particularly when you try to break it down geographically. Let’s start with the analyses of NHTSA’s crash data.
Safewise looked at FARS data for 2016 (the most recent year with complete data) to investigate the prevalence of distracted driving. It found that nine percent of all road fatalities, and six percent of driver fatalities, were caused by distracted driving and that the total number of deaths had increased by 14 percent in just two years. It then broke things down by state; the deadliest place to drive appears to be Mississippi, with 23.1 deaths per year for every 100,000 people. Alabama and South Carolina also exceeded 20 deaths per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia is the safest place to drive, with just four deaths per 100,000 people. For context, the national average for the country was 11.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
Distracted driving: More than just cellphones
Looking past just fatal crashes, Safewise calculated that the average incidence of cellphone use causing distracted driving nationally is about 14 percent. It found the practice most prevalent among the youngest drivers (19 percent for 15-19 year olds), followed by those aged 20-29 (18 percent), 40-49 (17 percent), and 30-39 (16 percent). Elderly drivers are the least likely to use a cell phone while driving, with use as low as two percent for those aged 70 and above.
Erie Insurance, also using FARS data, came to the same conclusion about the overall incidence of cellphone use causing distracted driving crashes, adding the fact that 61 percent of distracted driving-related crashes were down to drivers daydreaming.
It’s difficult to imagine legislation governing daydreaming while driving. But the past 10 years have seen plenty of legislation focused on preventing cell phone use while on the road. So Safewise looked at how well the states are enforcing laws to prevent cell phone use while driving. Fifteen states and DC have laws banning all cell phone use while driving, and most of the remaining ones at least ban texting while driving. Of these states, Delaware leads the pack in actually enforcing those laws, with 13,061 citations per 100,000 licensed drivers. New York (11,996) and DC (10,952) are the next best. But as you’ll see in the infographic, many other states issue few if any tickets for breaking those laws.
Using smartphones to study smartphone use while driving
Drivemode is an Android app designed to adhere to NHTSA safety guidelines for a driving app, with a simplified UI and hands-free talk-to-texting. It only looked at data from its 177,000 users to look at national and state-level trends for messaging while driving. Ignoring received messages, it looked at more than 6.5 million “hands-free” messages sent via the app during 2017. It found that people message and drive most frequently during the afternoon rush hour, peaking at 6.87 messages per user per hour between 5pm and 6pm nationally. New Yorkers were the most frequent texters, with 8.21 messages per hour between 5pm and 6pm.
Next up was EverQuote. It used data from its EverDrive app, which uses the phone’s GPS and accelerometers and gyroscopes, as well as noting whether the device screen is on or off, to generate a picture of each user’s driving, scoring it from 0-100. In 2017, it collected data from 781 million miles of driving and found that speeding (38 percent) and cellphone use (37 percent) were the two most common unsafe behaviors among drivers. When it broke down the data by driver age, an interesting finding emerged: the very youngest drivers (17 or under) were actually the most cautious when it comes to speeding, even if they’re among the worst for using a smartphone behind the wheel. It also found that there were no real gender differences in driving behavior.
When EverQuote looked at the data at a state level, some of the data appears to tell a slightly different story to the FARS data breakdown above. Many of the states with the best driving scores were in the Midwest, with Montana topping the charts: here only 33 percent of drivers used their phones, and only 19 percent of trips involved speeding. Wyoming scored an equally good score of 89.4 overall but with just slightly higher rates of cellphone use (34 percent) and speeding (22 percent).
Meanwhile the northeast corridor leads the nation for crappy driving. Worst of all is Connecticut; residents of this state scored the lowest average at 71.6, with 56 percent of trips involving speeding and 34 percent involving cell phone use. Surprisingly for this DC resident, Maryland drivers only scored fifth-worst overall.
Life360 also offers an iOS or Android app that can measure bad driving, and it, too, delved into its data to look at the problem. It found the most common times for cellphone use when driving was the afternoon rush hour (4pm-6pm) and also found that distracted driving causes other bad driving behaviors; drivers using their phones are four times more likely to speed and 40 percent more likely to have to brake heavily compared to their counterparts paying attention to the task at hand.
Like EverQuote, Life360 also found Midwest drivers to be the least distracted; Wyoming drivers used their phones only once every seven miles. Meanwhile it found New Jersey drivers ranked worst, picking up that phone every 4.7 miles.
Many dangerous drivers think they’re safe
Envista Forensics surveyed 2,000 people who admitted to recent dangerous driving behaviors—being rushed, distracted, aggressive, or intoxicated. Of these, 56 percent didn’t actually think distracted driving dangerous—a rather shocking fact. Among aggressive drivers, 25 percent said they wanted to teach someone else a lesson, 16 percent wanted to get even, and 12 percent wanted to intimidate the other driver. Only 47 percent said it reflected bad judgement upon their part.
But it did find signs of people wanting to do better. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they had tried and succeeded in driving intoxicated less often, 64 percent say they are being rushed and aggressive while driving less often, and 58 percent have tried and succeeded in driving distractedly less often. But 22 percent haven’t even tried to be less distracted when driving, suggesting we have a ways to go. Envista also broke down its data geographically, discovering that drivers in the Southeast were most likely to minimize the danger of distracted driving. Meanwhile, those Northeasteners were most worried about being late (and therefore most likely to speed). It also looked at trends by age, finding Boomers most likely to say they can drive safely while intoxicated and Millennials five times more likely to say they can safely multitask while driving.
Even among people who have to drive for work, there’s plenty of poor behavior out on the roads. Motus Trend spoke to businesses about driving behavior and found that the cost to employers for vehicle crashes has risen from $47.4 billion in 2013 to $56.7 billion in 2017. And 68 percent of businesses have reported recent on-the-job crashes in company-owned vehicles, but only 42.6 percent of businesses are mandating driver safety programs before they let employees drive work vehicles. The data for on-the-job crashes involving employee-owned vehicles was 41 percent, with even fewer (19.5 percent) mandating driver safety programs.
All in all, the reports above paint a relatively bleak picture of our attitudes toward safe driving. As ever, the best advice if you’re going to be behind the wheel is to put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode and place it out of sight in a cubby.