Some drivers are more distracted by phones than others

By Michael  Brenneis

With vehicle-related fatalities exceeding 40,000 annually, the search is on to isolate causes. On the distraction front, the driver behavior analytics company Zendrive has released its 2018 Distracted Driving Snapshot.

The study looks at 4.5 million Zendrive users, driving 7.1 billion miles over the 89-day period between December 2017 and February 2018. The figures are sobering: On an average day, 60 percent of the study participants used a phone at least once while behind the wheel, and the average usage was 1 minute 52 seconds per hour of driving. Eliminating those who did not use their phones while driving, the remaining habitual users averaged 3 minutes 40 seconds of phone usage per hour. According to Zendrive, habitual users are distracted by their phones for 28 percent of the time they’re driving, they take 50 percent more trips than the general population, and are more dangerous than drunk drivers. State laws prohibiting phone usage appear to have little reductive effect, the report notes. Perhaps there is some irony that it is the ubiquity of smartphones themselves that has opened up the ability to collect data on and study distraction.

Zendrive collects data from smartphone sensors such as the accelerometer, gyroscope, or GPS from client fleet drivers. In the on-demand sector these may include the fleets of transportation networking, delivery, home services, or courier companies. Other corporate users may include companies tracking employee activity or expenses. According to Zendrive, the data used in this study comes from “standard passenger vehicles…not tractor trailers or other large industrial vehicles.”

The study defines phone use as the driver handling the phone for a certain period of time—the company can distinguish driver from passenger usage—but does not identify the apps used or other purposes for using the phone. Interestingly, Zendrive found that the majority of phone use was initiated during the first 5 percent of the travel time. One potential question that this raises is: When during a journey do most crashes occur, and if not during this period of high phone distraction, to what degree does phone distraction contribute? Some argue that the level of distraction behind the wheel has always been a major—but static—issue, with many secondary behaviors contributing to the risk. Perhaps it is the proportion of distraction by phone that is increasing.

One estimate places the proportion of crashes occurring while a driver is using their cell phone at 27 percent. But researchers have yet to definitively establish a causal relationship between phone distraction and crashes.

Deterring drivers from using phones is a laudable objective that would benefit from comprehensive attention. Of course, there are other issues that put drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians at risk. Roads designed for vehicle throughput at maximum speed—with little or no accommodation for vulnerable users to travel on, alongside, or to cross—put cyclists and pedestrians at great risk. In combination, unforgiving road design, sprawling land use patterns, prodigious VMT, the proliferation of SUVs, and driver distraction contribute to a dangerous situation on our roads.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.