The Washington Post

Survey: Drivers ignore warnings about risk of texting and cellphone use while on the road

Let’s start with the good news: Only 1 percent of drivers older than 75 say they text while behind the wheel. Now the bad: It gets a whole lot worse from there.

More than 40 percent of people between 19 and 39 years old say they text while they drive, and 10 percent of them say they do it regularly. More than half of those questioned in a new survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety say they talk on their cellphones while driving.

“Using your phone while driving may seem safe, but it roughly quadruples your risk of being in a crash, according to previous research,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “None of us is immune from the dangers of distracted driving. The best advice is to hang up and drive.”

The number of roadway deaths linked to distracted driving last year dropped slightly to 3,328, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s 32 fewer than in 2011, when NHTSA said distracted driving was to blame for 10 percent of all crashes and 387,000 injuries.

It has been estimated that 660,000 Americans use electronic devices while driving at any moment during daylight hours, and most people say they recognize the risk posed by distracted driving. It’s an irony borne out by many surveys: Drivers think they’re able to use their phones safely but wish others wouldn’t.

In June, a Washington Post poll found that 65 percent of people who live in the D.C. region said they often see other drivers with a cellphone to their ear. Only 14 percent admitted to doing that often themselves.

The AAA foundation survey builds on the group’s earlier work, a comprehensive study by researchers at the University of Utah. Released this past summer, the report found that the more complicated and absorbing a task becomes — such as text messaging or a phone conversation — the greater the distraction. And the longer any such task takes, the more absorbing it becomes.

The study described a problem called “inattention blindness.” A driver might see something that should trigger caution, but the realization doesn’t register in time for the driver to react by braking or swerving to safety. The study also found that voice-activated devices that allow drivers to listen to or send text messages without touching their mobile device are not effective in reducing distraction.

When compared with other diversions inside the car, “interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting,” the report said. “This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety.”

Concern, studies and new laws about distracted driving have ballooned since then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood embraced the issue almost five years ago. Although LaHood’s efforts — and observations by average drivers of scary distracted behavior on the road — have increased awareness of the risk, the new AAA survey of 2,325 drivers suggests that hasn’t translated into reduced use of mobile devices.

Overall, the survey found that 26 percent of drivers said they text and 6 percent said they did so frequently. Sixty-seven percent said they talk on their phones while driving, 28 percent of them regularly.

Surprisingly, given that they may be the most tech-savvy, the youngest drivers said they text and talk less often than older drivers do. The 16- to 18-year-old group talked less on their phones while behind the wheel than any group younger than 60 and were less likely to text than drivers between ages 19 and 39.

“Teens may be absorbing the constant safety messages related to distracted driving, and therefore are choosing to use their cellphone less often while driving,” said John B. Townsend II of the AAA. “On the other hand, younger adult drivers may have a false sense of confidence when using their phones.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.

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