Ask Jenny Burke
Calls, Technology Most Common Driver Distractions
In this issue of Focus on the Drive, National Safety Council Senior Director of Advocacy Jenny Burke tackles questions on distracted driving.
"Because everyday concerns regarding distracted driving are as likely to bubble up in January as June, I am regularly engaged in conversations and always on the lookout for ideas to help people remain alert and attentive behind the wheel. We focus our efforts on distracted driving education, legislation and enforcement." –
What are the most common driver distractions?
A: You might think common distractions include applying makeup while behind the wheel or snacking on some french fries. But the truth is, although these activities can be distracting because they take your focus off the task at hand, neither are as common as cell phone distraction. Cell phones allow drivers to call, text, email, update social media and browse the Internet. In addition to cell phones, drivers can now also use in-vehicle infotainment technology.
Use of this technology while driving can produce cognitive distraction that leads to inattention blindness. Research indicates drivers using handheld and hands-free phones experience inattention blindness, which means they only see about 50% of all the information in their driving environment.
distracted driving public opinion poll conducted by the National Safety Council, 55% of drivers said they would make calls while behind the wheel, but driving requires complex thought processes. Cell phone conversations also require thought. Crashes often are the result of trying to do both simultaneously because the thought process is slowed down, resulting in things like delayed braking or failure to spot a traffic signal.
NSC also found drivers would:
- Glance at, read or post social media messages (23%)
- Access the Internet (21%)
- Look at, take or post photos or video (19%)
- Use a laptop or tablet computer (19%)
Often, teens are at the center of concern about cell phone distraction. NSC found adult drivers are only a little bit less willing to engage in risky cell phone driving behaviors than teens.
Q: How many people are injured or killed in cell phone distracted driving crashes each year?
A: In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 3,477 people were killed. Another 391,000 were injured. At NSC, we believe this is a minimum number. The actual numbers of people killed and injured are higher, but we don't know how high.
The problem with the data lies in the challenges associated with verifying that cell phone use is a contributing factor in a crash. Police often must rely on drivers admitting to cell phone use. People are not always forthcoming. Even when they are, NSC found in a study that crash reports are not always coded properly and that there is
substantial under-reporting of cell phone involvement in fatal crashes.
Q: Why is technology made available in vehicles today if it can cause distraction?
A: The answer might be as simple as this: Manufacturers are going to provide features that consumers want. Until laws are strengthened or consumers rise up, that is unlikely to change. More education is needed. According to an NSC poll, 53% of respondents said they believe voice control features are safe because they're provided in vehicles. Convenience does not equal safety.
In the U.S.,
texting while driving is banned for all drivers in all but four states – Arizona, Missouri, Montana and Texas. All use of cell phones by teen drivers (hands-free and handheld) is restricted in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Why not adults? Another good question.
There is irony in this: A
problem created by technology could be solved by technology. There are apps and devices than can put phones in "airplane mode" and help drivers stay focused on driving. One way the apps and devices work is by putting a "geofence" – also referred to as a virtual barrier – around the driver. Another way is to detect when the phone is moving more than 10 miles per hour, and the technology automatically sends the phone into "airplane mode."
Do you have a question about distracted driving? Please email it to Ron Kremer:
firstname.lastname@example.org. It could be featured in the next edition of Focus on the Drive.
More Thorough Investigation of Crashes Needed
You don't have to be a mathlete to crunch these numbers: Every 8 seconds someone is injured in a car crash. Every 15 minutes someone is killed. You do have to dig deep to understand the scope of the traffic safety problem in the U.S.
When you have good data, you can make good decisions to protect your employees, your company and those who live and work in your community, too. The problem is,
police reports don't always capture the real reasons drivers crash.
In a comprehensive review, NSC found crash reports in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., lack fields or codes for law enforcement to record the level of fatigue at the time of an incident. Three other significant findings:
- 26 state reports lack fields to capture texting
- 32 states lack fields to record hands-free cell phone use
- 32 states lack fields to identify specific types of drug use, including marijuana
On a national level, crash prevention efforts are impacted by the undercounting of data in at least two areas:
- Factors that are difficult to observe and measure, such as driver behavior
- Factors involving fast-emerging communications and entertainment technologies, and advanced driver assistance systems
NSC recommendations include shifting from an "accident report" mentality to a "crash investigation" mindset, and investing in local and state toxicology resources for drug testing. A full list of recommendations can be found in the report –
Undercounted is Underinvested: How Incomplete Crash Reports Impact Efforts to Save Lives.
How Does Your State Measure Up?
Speed is a factor in about
28% of crash fatalities, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. When the
National Safety Council reviewed crash reports, almost all states included fields for excessive speed or unsafe speed. Yet, less than one-fourth of states quantified speed by recording the estimated miles per hour traveled before a crash.
This distinction is an important one to make because crash energy increases exponentially. Each increase of 10 mph increases crash risk and the damage when a crash occurs. Data influences national prevention priorities, funding decisions, media attention, legislation, and even vehicle and roadway engineering.
Engineering is viewed as a potential solution for the recent
surge in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities.
No state collects data for all 23 specific crash factors identified by NSC in
Undercounted is Underinvested: How Incomplete Crash Reports Impact Efforts to Save Lives. Some states do collect more data than others:
- Kansas and Wisconsin lead by including fields and codes for 14 of the crash factors
- Maryland, Kentucky and Nebraska capture just five of the 23 crash factors
- Six states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, New York and Virginia – do not provide fields or codes for police to capture alcohol impairment at low levels
- Four of the eight states that permit recreational marijuana use – Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington – include fields to record positive marijuana results from drug tests
- Three states – New York, Virginia and Wisconsin – include fields and codes to assess use of infotainment system features and voice recognition features
does your state measure up?
Traffic Safety Message: S-P-I-D-ER
An NSC webinar to promote distracted driving awareness introduces viewers to an AT&T survey that found 57% of drivers would stop using their phones behind the wheel if asked by a friend. The conversation is about delivering more positive messages, such as protecting yourself and other loved ones traveling with you. End Distracted Driving's Cognitive Process for Attentive Driving infographic is shared and the meaning of S-P-I-D-ER, as outlined in "A Framework for Understanding Driver Distraction," is highlighted.
In the acronym, each letter is used to trigger a physical or mental action:
- S: Scanning for potential threats
- P: Predicting where threats may come from
- I: Identifying visible threats
- D: Deciding whether to act or what action to take
- E-R: Executing appropriate Responses
Co-presenter Dr. Paul Atchley from the University of Kansas said laws and rules change norms and attitudes. He said employers can drive change within their organizations through education, particularly in areas such as multitasking, the use of hands-free devices and inattention blindness.
"If touching something was a problem, we would have eliminated stick shifts years ago. It's not touching. It's, 'Is your mind focused on the task at hand – driving?' " he said.
Watch: Driving Distraction-Free and Defensively.