Distracted Driving: An Epidemic?

Next time you’re driving and you take your hands off the steering wheel to reach for your coffee, or cell phone, or GPS unit, consider this: distracted driving-related crashes killed 5,474 people and injured another 448,000 across the United States in 2009.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report found that the proportion of overall traffic fatalities associated with driver distraction increased from 10 percent to 16 percent between 2005 and 2009, though the percentage remained unchanged between 2008 and 2009.

Of those people killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved reports of a cell phone as a distraction (18 percent of fatalities). Of those injured in distraction-related crashes, 24,000 involved reports of a cell phone as a distraction (5 percent of injuries).

In a Sunday op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel published on the eve of the second Distracted Driving Summit, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the numbers show that distracted driving remains an epidemic in America and, due to underreporting, are just the tip of the iceberg.

The news comes as overall traffic fatalities fell in 2009 to their lowest levels since 1950. Updated 2009 NHTSA figures show that 33,808 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009, down 9.7 percent from 37,423 in 2008.

The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even while estimated vehicle miles traveled in 2009 increased by 0.2 percent over 2008 levels.

Meanwhile, debate continues on the best way to tackle the distracted driving problem, in particular cell phone use. Laws, effective enforcement, public education, crash avoidance technology, or a combination of all of these?

According to the DOT, distraction laws and enforcement are raising public awareness and changing behavior, resulting in major declines in distracted driving in certain areas of the country.

However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) points out that while bans on driver phone use reduce phoning, they don’t reduce crash risk. A better prescription for distracted driving might be crash avoidance features, the IIHS says.

Which brings us to personal responsibility. The findings of a just-released Chubb survey reveal an amazing disconnect between how people view the dangers associated with distracted driving and their own behavior behind the wheel.

It found that more than half of U.S. motorists say they have used a cell phone while driving, but 90 percent say it should be illegal to do so.

In a press release Raymond Crisci, vice president and worldwide automobile product manager for Chubb Personal Insurance, says:

We’re hopeful that as people continue to become more educated regarding the hazards associated with distracted driving, they’ll be less likely to engage in risky behavior.†

Good point. What do you think?

For related info, check out an I.I.I. issues paper on auto crashes and I.I.I. facts and stats on highway safety.

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