When you are driving, how often do you see other drivers checking their phones while behind the wheel? And, be honest, how often do you do it yourself?
The problem has gotten so big that highways across the country now regularly warn drivers “Don’t text and drive.” And 46 states and the District of Columbia have laws banning texting and driving. But the issue isn’t just talking and texting anymore. Drivers are on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google Maps, Spotify, YouTube and now “Pokemon Go,” the video game that has captured the world’s attention and has become the latest concern for distracted-driving advocates.
Recently, a man was accused of crashing his vehicle into a parked police car in Baltimore while playing “Pokemon Go.” In Napa, a teenage driver who may have been playing the popular video game ran her truck into a power pole.
Jennifer Smith, a mother of two and founder of the advocacy group StopDistractions.org, lost her mother in a crash nearly eight years ago when a 20-year-old who was talking on the phone drove through a stoplight. Since then, she has devoted her life to helping other families that have become victims of distracted driving.
“As I’m talking to new families, more and more of them are telling me, ‘It’s Snapchat,’ ” said Smith, whose daughters were 1 and 13 when their grandmother was killed in Oklahoma City. “It’s Snapchat today, but then what is it tomorrow? You know, we’ve got the ‘Pokemon Go’ coming, and then it’s the next thing.”
Smith, who works full-time supporting families, lobbying for legislation and planning public awareness events, said people need to really focus on what’s important. “Social networking while driving is not necessary and should not be done by anyone, in any way, who’s driving. Period. And somehow we’ve got to make the whole country understand that.”
Judging by the results of a recent survey, we have a long way to go in getting that message out.
Nearly 70% of teens say they use apps while driving, according to a just-released survey of 2,500 high school-age children across the country. When the teens were asked to rank the behaviors they consider the most distracting or dangerous for a teen driver, 29% said driving under the influence of alcohol and 25% said writing or sending a text message. Only 6% said actively looking at or posting to social media is the most distracting or dangerous behavior behind the wheel for a teen driver, according to the survey by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).
In another survey (PDF), this one sponsored by the National Safety Council and focusing on 2,400 drivers of all ages, 74% said they would use Facebook while driving, and 37% said they would use Twitter while behind the wheel, with YouTube (35%) and Instagram (33%) close behind.
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive officer for the National Safety Council. “I would say most people see this line as a fairly blurry one and not a bright line.”
‘An under-reported issue’
Every day, more than eight people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes reported to involve distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving includes activities such as talking on a cell phone, texting and eating.
But the number of those killed and injured is probably much higher, said Hersman. “There’s a dearth of good data,” she said. It’s a challenge to prove that crashes were the result of distracted driving, especially when survivors may be reluctant to admit they were using their phone.
“We know that it’s an under-reported issue and it’s a lot like impaired driving in that way where people know it’s not acceptable to do it, and yet a lot of people still do it anyway.”
Based on observations and crash data, the National Safety Council estimates that about one-fourth of all crashes can be attributed to distracted driving connected with use of a phone. “What we are seeing in the observational data is that even though people are not being observed talking as much as they were in the past on handheld phones, they are seeing an increase in texting,” Hersman said.
Looking at your phone to read one text is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field with your eyes off the road, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A single text increases your chances of crashing by at least six times, according to a study by the University of Utah.
‘Anything can happen’
Matt Boeve knows all too well how deadly distracted driving can be. In June 2014, his beloved wife, Andrea, took their children, then 11 months and 4 years old, for a bike ride near their home and family farm in rural Steen, Minnesota. At the same time, a driver, Chris Weber, a member of the South Dakota National Guard and father of two, decided to make a loan payment on his phone.
Weber says he looked down at his phone and heard a thud. He says he never saw Andrea and the girls.
“I just knew he was on his phone. My gut told me that even before I got to the scene. I knew. And it’s tough. It’s so preventable. I mean, we are addicted to our phones,” Boeve said. “Anything can happen, and that anything happened to us.”
Andrea Boeve was killed, and 4-year-old Claire was seriously injured, with a punctured lung and five broken ribs. Thankfully, she survived, and her little sister wasn’t hurt.
“You think you can take your eye off the road a minute to read a text, to check an app, but a split second took my wife and almost took my children,” he said.
Can personality predict distracted driving?
At the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s distracted-driving research lab, I took a ride on an SUV simulator to see just how dangerous distracted driving can be. When I looked down to read or write a text or send a message on Facebook, I swerved and nearly crashed every time.
“I think, on average, you were taking your eyes off the road for five seconds,” said Despina Stavrinos, director of the university’s Translational Research for Injury Prevention (TRIP) Laboratory. “Many times, when you are engaging in social media, you are taking your eye off the road for long glances over two seconds that significantly increase your crash risk.”
Stavrinos, who is also an assistant professor in the school’s department of psychology, and her colleagues recently conducted a study that found that personality may predict distracted driving, but the personality traits were different for teens versus older drivers.
In the study, which looked at 120 teen and older drivers, the more extroverted older drivers were more likely to be distracted drivers, which seems to make sense. The more outgoing you are, the more likely you are to want to stay connected with friends and family, even behind the wheel.
But the results for teen drivers were surprising. Conscientious teens were the ones who were more likely to engage in texting and driving. “That is kind of opposite of what we originally had hypothesized. These are individuals that feel like they need to make others happy and fulfill certain tasks, so it is very conscientious of them to reply to your message,” Stavrinos said.
The research could be helpful in prevention efforts by using educational campaigns to target people who have the personality traits that might make them more likely to drive distracted, she said.
For Boeve, whose girls are now 3 and 6, part of the solution is just getting the word out.
“People think that it won’t happen to them. That’s the just way it is. It’s sad. We have to retrain ourselves to think that … no text or phone call is worth putting someone through this.”
Editor’s note: See the weeklong series “DWD: Driving While Distracted” online and watch the TV special on CNN on Saturday, August 6, at 2:30 p.m. ET.