Canadian Underwriter

Distracted driving ‘much larger problem than just electronic devices’

October 27, 2014   by Canadian Underwriter

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New research suggests that there are distractions to driving other than cellphone use and there needs to be a “broader strategy” to deal with distracted driving, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said in a recent article.

“Even though studies show that phone use by drivers has declined in states with bans, crashes reported to insurers haven’t gone down during the same period,” IIHS stated in an article in its Status Report newsletter, published Oct. 24. “While phoning and texting have become synonymous with distracted driving in the news, distraction is a much larger problem than just electronic devices.”

IIHS reported that in new research – conducted in conjunction with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute – a driver’s crash or “near crash” rate “nearly tripled when reaching for, answering or dialing a cellphone.”

VTTI – part of Blacksburg, Virginia-based Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – conducts “naturalistic driving studies,” which use video to gather information on drivers.

IIHS referred two papers published in October. Both used data from a VTTI naturalistic driving study conducted in 2003 and 2004. In that study, vehicles “were fitted with an instrumentation package that monitored longitudinal and lateral acceleration and lane-keeping behavior,” according to one of the papers, titled Relationship of Near-Crash/Crash Risk to Time Spent on a Cell Phone While Driving.

The instruments were used to detect “possible crashes or conflicts.” There was also video footage of “a forward view, a rearward view, a view out the right side, a view of the driver’s face and out the left side, and an over-the-shoulder view of the driver’s hands.”

In the studies, the researchers “coded a near-crash event when drivers braked hard or made a sudden evasive maneuver to avoid a conflict,” IIHS noted. The drivers “were recruited from among commuters in the Northern Virginia/Washington, DC metropolitan area.”

“Use of a cell phone while driving increases the risk of a crash or near crash, especially when reaching for or dialing the phone,” the authors concluded. “However, this increased risk seems to have little or no effect on overall crash/near-crash risk (i.e., during driving times both on and off the phone). That is, increased phone use by an individual driver was not associated with increased crash/near-crash events.”

The other new paper was titled Secondary Behavior of Drivers on Cell Phones and was based in part on a review of the video data from the naturalistic driving study.

More time (11.7%) was spent interacting with passengers, 6.5% of the time was spent talking on a cellphone, 1.3% of time was spent on “other cellphone interaction,” 3.5% of time was spent adjusting the radio or climate control and 4.9% of time was spent “talking/singing dancing alone,” according to the research.

“Increases in the amount of driving time spent talking on a cell phone are associated with decreases in time spent on other distracting behavior and decreases in eye glances not related to the driving task,” the authors concluded. “Although using a cell phone can be distracting from the driving task, other secondary activities can be equally or more distracting, at least as measured by eye glances away from the road ahead and mirrors.”

The authors noted the results of the research “are consistent with the lack of a dose-response relationship between population cell phone usage rates and crashes.” Those results “indicate that predictions about the effect of cell phone usage on driver distraction need to consider what other behavior is being displaced by the time spent on the phone. Focusing only on the distraction of using cell phones while driving may lead drivers to disregard the risk of other secondary behavior that is even more distracting.”

IIHS noted in its Oct.24 Status Report that that “apparent safety” risk of cellphone use “hasn’t translated into higher crash rates.”

IIHS also published a graph depicting the rate in police-reported crashes, per million miles travelled, each year back to 1988, when the rate was 3.39496. That rate dropped to 2.05595 in 2005, then to 1.80795 in 2011 before increasing to 1.888 in 2012.