As crashes rise, distracted driving has (mostly) stayed the same

By Chris McCahill

Are cell phones to blame for rising traffic deaths? We have looked for evidence before and came up empty-handed. A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that drivers are just as distracted now as they were a few years ago, but some are swapping old distractions for new ones, like handheld phones. That could be a problem, according the study, but it doesn’t explain why our roads have become so dangerous.

From 2014 to 2017, during the period of this new study, the number of fatal crashes increased by 14 percent across the U.S. and by 19 percent in Virginia, where the study was conducted. The study looks at whether distracted driving, and particularly cell phone use, could have caused this sharp increase.

For the study, published in the Journal of Safety Research, researchers observed nearly 12,000 drivers at four locations in Northern Virginia in 2018, replicating an identical study from four years earlier. Overall, there were no major changes. Consistently, 23 percent of drivers were engaged in “secondary behaviors,” which include holding or using a cellphone, wearing headphones, eating, drinking, smoking, talking, singing and other non-driving activities. Cell phones were involved in less than half of those activities, dropping slightly from 11 to 10 percent of the total during the study period (this change was not statistically significant, but it is consistent with findings from NHTSA). Talking and singing topped the list of non-cell phone activities, at around five percent of the total, although talking or singing while alone dropped slightly.

The study, however, notes that cell phone users were caught manipulating their phones more often (e.g., texting or browsing) rather than just holding them. Of the 10 to 11 percent of drivers observed interacting with cell phones, the number of people talking on their phones stayed around 4 percent of the total but the number of people manipulating their phones increased from 2.3 to 3.4 percent. The youngest drivers (those under 20) were the most likely to be interacting with their phones, especially manipulating them, and drivers over 60 were the least likely. Those age 20 to 60, however, were the most likely to be talking on phones.

The study concludes that distracted driving, particularly the handheld use of phones, is a major concern and that current laws, such as Virginia’s ban on texting, are too limited to address the full range of distracted behaviors. The authors also note that while handheld phone use has been linked to higher crash risks, compared to other kinds of activities, the patterns they saw do not fully explain the recent rise in crashes.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.