Most drivers probably guilty of distracted driving, report says

With hectic schedules, full lives and so many mobile devices and apps at their disposal, it's no surprise that drivers are often distracted behind the wheel. A 2011 research review from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) shows just how common distracted driving has become.
Distractions by the numbers

The GHSA research review looked at 350 scientific papers published between 2000 and 2011 to determine how often drivers are distracted and what's distracting them. When it came to cellphones, the review found that:
  • About two-thirds of drivers admitted using a cellphone while driving within the past 30 days.
  • Roughly one-third of drivers said they regularly used a cellphone behind the wheel.
  • About one-eighth of drivers reported that they texted while driving. Texting is more common among younger drivers.
While cellphones are the most publicized driving distraction, they still are only one example. The GHSA report also analyzed a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, which found that:
  • Four out of five drivers talked to other passengers while driving.
  • Two-thirds changed radio stations, CDs or tapes.
  • About half of drivers reported eating or drinking while driving.
  • Nearly one-fourth tended to the needs of children sitting in a rear seat.
One study featured in the GHSA report suggested that drivers are distracted between 25 percent and 50 percent of the time they're behind the wheel. It also estimated that distracted driving was a factor in 15 percent to 30 percent of crashes.
Understanding driving distractions

The list of driving distractions is nearly endless, but GHSA identifies four main types:
  • Visual: Taking your eyes off the road (using a smartphone app while driving).
  • Auditory: Listening to something that's not related to driving (listening to the radio).
  • Manual: Taking your hands off the wheel (taking care of a child in the back seat).
  • Cognitive: Taking your mind off the road (composing an email on your smartphone).
Generally speaking, the more types of distractions involved in a particular task, the more dangerous it is. For example, according to the review, making a call on a handheld phone hits all four categories because it requires holding the phone, looking at the keys, listening to the conversation and formulating your own response.
Handless, voice-activated phones would seem to remove two of these four distractions. Yet studies featured in the GHSA report found that hands-free phones were not much safer when it came to crash prevention.
The consequences of distraction

Some of the studies analyzed in the review concluded that as many as one-fourth of all crashes are caused by cellphones. Other studies included in the review, however, came up with much smaller numbers that were as low as 3 percent to 4 percent. The NHTSA falls in the middle, estimating that 18 percent to 22 percent of crashes are associated with any form of driving distraction.
GHSA notes that truly reliable information about the influence of cellphones on crashes remains elusive because cellphone records are not available for research purposes in the United States and because a driving distraction may not be cited on a police report. Moreover, research about texting while driving is scarce, although GHSA suspects that it is likely more dangerous than talking on a cellphone because texting requires a great deal of manual and visual activity.
Distracted driving and auto insurance

If distracted driving means more accidents, will that mean higher auto insurance premiums? A study analyzed in the GHSA report indicates that while cellphone has grown, insurance companies have seen collision claim rates stay flat or even decrease slightly. This trend was observed in states with and without cellphone laws.
However, GHSA does point out that many collisions involving cellphone use may be so minor that a collision claim isn't filed. Or it's possible that the drivers involved did not have collision coverage.
State laws for distracted drivers

State laws address two examples of distracted driving -- talking on a cellphone and texting. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, talking on a cellphone while driving is banned in 10 states. Texting is banned in 34 states. When it comes to novice drivers, 30 states ban talking on a cellphone, and seven ban texting.
A handful of states, however, have chosen to soften the enforcement of some of these bans by making them secondary offenses. In other words, drivers can get citations for cellphone use only if they've already committed some other moving violation.

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