D.C. area poll confirms worries about distracted driving

By Ashley Halsey III and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 4, 2010

A sport-utility vehicle drifts into your lane going 70 miles an hour. A car dawdles along the Capital Beltway at 40 in the fast lane. The tires might be on the road, but the driver's mind is elsewhere, perhaps deep in a conversation with somebody, somewhere, and that's putting your life at risk.

Fully 80 percent of area adults often see distracted driving, with reports of such behavior surging in the past five years, according to a new Washington Post poll. Nearly one-quarter of respondents said they e-mail, text or use the Internet while driving, and 16 percent said they regularly don't pay enough attention behind the wheel.

For David Grier, it's the oblivious drivers he encounters during his commute on Interstate 66. For Ted Yates, it's the text-messaging motorists he has seen ram cars from behind at College Park intersections.

"It's a huge problem," said Grier, 52, a McLean resident who drives into the District for a State Department job. "I see lots of people getting cut off by people who aren't paying attention, and I get cut off myself."

In the poll, more than two-thirds of respondents said they often witness overly aggressive driving, but just one in eight considers his or her own driving too aggressive. Almost everyone in the poll reported seeing area drivers frequently clutching cellphones, and nearly three-quarters regularly observe drivers typing on mobile devices.

"I see people texting with the cellphone on top of the steering wheel," said Yates, 22, a student. "People will come up on a stop sign or traffic light and rear-end the car in front."

Distracted driving is a national problem that plays out intensely on the congested roads in and around Washington. Nationwide, it is estimated that distracted driving causes 1.4 million crashes each year.

More than half of area drivers talk on the phone while mired in traffic, according to the poll, something the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, emphatically reports takes "your mind off the road." The vast majority of those ages 18 to 29 talk on the phone while driving, the poll found, a figure that slips all the way to 15 percent among seniors.

Forty percent of young adults text, e-mail or use the Web while in traffic, according to the poll, compared with 21 percent of those ages 30 to 64 and 3 percent of those 65 and older.

Almost everyone polled -- including those younger than 30 -- said sending or reading texts or e-mails while driving should be illegal. But there are big gaps in opinion on the use of cellphones for their original purpose: talking.

About three-quarters of area respondents said it should be illegal for people to talk on hand-held cellphones while driving, but nearly as many, about seven in 10, see hands-free devices as all right to use on the road.

The District forbids drivers to use hand-held cellphones on its streets; Maryland is considering such a prohibition.

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