Distracted driving is an epidemic. More and more data show this sad fact. And yet drivers report feeling more confident with their driving ability than ever. The combination of that attitude with the range of distractions available to drivers is behind the increase in crashes and fatalities.
U.S. fatalities from traffic accidents rose 7.2% in 2015 to 35,092—the largest increase in 50 years—and distracted driving played a role in 10% of those deaths, according to recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures. NHTSA found that fatalities from "distraction-affected" crashes increased 8.8% to 3,477 from 3,197 for that year.
Considering how many distractions drivers have at their fingertips - between cell phones, applying makeup, brushing teeth, fast food lunches and following GPS navigation systems, that figure might actually seem low.
The auto insurer Everquote conducted a survey and found some cognitive dissonance in its respondents. For example, nearly every one (96%) of the survey respondents said he or she is a safe driver, but 56% of the same group admitted to using the phone while driving. Not only is that unsafe driving behavior, it's also illegal in Washington.
The company also gleaned data from its app, and the numbers tell a different story. 96% of all drivers used their phones at least once in the past 30 days, and drivers averaged about one call per trip. For every 11 miles driven, the "average" driver is on the phone for 0.4 miles.
The survey does not distinguish between use of the phone for talking or for texting, which is arguably more dangerous. Another wrinkle: Conversations will not register if the driver uses speaker phone or bluetooth and so does not actually pick up the handset. But recent data shows that even hands-free devices are dangerous, and in fact, even more so than hand-held devices. Even new legislation is struggling to keep up with the current findings on how deadly it is to drive distracted.
Excessive speed, as always, is another big factor in traffic fatalities. NHTSA data found that deaths in crashes involving speeding rose 3% in 2015 to 9,557 from 9,283. And the funny thing is, speeding doesn't get you there any faster.
One would think that speeding over the limit is pretty cut and dried. But 42% of the surveyed drivers said they don't consider going 10 mph over the speed limit to be speeding. Another 10% said they don't think a 20 mph increase is speeding. Meanwhile, the app data showed that drivers speed at least 10 mph more than half of the time. National data shows that even a 10 mph speed increase ups the risk of a crash by 9.1%.
Unsurprisingly, most (81%) of drivers surveyed felt they are better, safer drivers than any self-driving car from Tesla, Google, or any other company could be. Meanwhile, 2015 research posits that self-driving cars will reduce crashes up to 90% over those driven by human drivers.
The scary thing is most automakers seem to be packing more "infotainment" gear in each new car. I think this problem is going to get worse before it gets better, and the only real improvement will be when each driver takes action and no longer drives distracted.