State Farm study: Drivers distracted by mobile web

Neil Bartlett
A new study from State Farm paints a troubling picture of how much drivers are engaging in distracted driving -- particularly the use of mobile web devices behind the wheel.
“The study supports what the insurance industry has suspected all along -- that use of mobile web services has increased significantly,” says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.
Facebooking while driving
The study was released in December 2011. It shows that over a three-year period, drivers of all ages reported increases in a range of behind-the-wheel activities, such as responding to emails, accessing the Internet and reading posts on social media sites like Facebook.
The most significant increases in the State Farm study involve the rising use of the mobile Web by younger drivers:
  • For drivers age 18 to 29, accessing the Internet on a cellphone increased to 43 percent in 2011, up from 29 percent in 2009.
  • Viewing social networks by drivers 18 to 29 while driving almost doubled to 37 percent in 2011, up from 21 percent in 2009.
  • Updating social networks by drivers 18 to 29 while driving increased to 33 percent in 2011, up from 20 percent in 2009.
Because the State Farm study was based on actions reported by drivers, rather than researchers' observations, more details are available, such as the level of email and social media behavior. And since this was the third year for the State Farm study, researchers could easily identify trends, according to Chris Mullen, director of technology research at State Farm.
Worters points out that the study indicates there’s little evidence about the effects of distractions on crash risk; auto insurance rates are based on crash risk as well as other factors, such as age, gender and type of vehicle.
The dangers of distraction
Keep in mind that all distracted driving is dangerous, whether it’s messing with your radio or reaching into a fast-food bag to grab a burger. To give just one example, sending or receiving a text takes your eyes from the road for almost five seconds. That’s the same as driving blind the length of an entire football field, according to a 2009 study from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In case that’s not enough reason to focus on your driving, safety experts also warn about the dangers of multitasking. A 2010 study from the National Safety Council points out that multitasking actually is a myth. The brain can handle only one function at a time. When you attempt two complex tasks like driving and talking on your cellphone, the brain shifts its focus. Important information drops out of view and goes unprocessed.
The role of education and laws
Rob Reynolds is executive director of FocusDriven, a nonprofit organization dedicated to informing the public about the dangers of distracted driving. Just as education and laws have helped reduce the prevalence of smoking, education and laws are keys to stopping the growth of distracted driving, he says.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t believe I’d see bars where smoking isn’t allowed,” Reynolds says.
But over time, people have become more aware of the risks of smoking, he says. The same awareness is needed with distracted driving, Reynolds says.
“Let’s face it: Driving is not fun or exciting,” he says. “But we’re talking about responsibility and about saving lives.”
How to act
Unfortunately, it’s human nature to blame the other guy on the road for driving distracted. But each of us needs to drive attentively and examine our own actions. Here are some tips for doing that:
  • Inform frequent callers that you won’t talk to them while you're driving.
  • Be aware of the other driver – especially, but not only, younger drivers. “It’s all about defensive driving,” says Missy Dundov, a spokeswoman for State Farm. “You can’t control what others are doing, but you can be more aware of what is happening around you. Make better practices for yourself and be as focused as you can on the road.”

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