February 4, 2021 by Adam Malik
Messaging around distracted driving hasn’t worked, so it’s time to come up with a new strategy to reduce driving risk, a panellist on a recent webinar suggested.
Instead of saying how bad it is to be distracted, insurers and governments should be educating drivers to scan their surroundings for threats, said Jay Winsten, director at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That includes keeping an eye out for other drivers who may be distracted.
“I agree with everyone else that we’re not going to convince people that they can handle [distracted driving] themselves,” he said during the webinar entitled Road Safety in the Digital Age: The Impact of Phone-Based Distraction. “But I think we need to flip it around and say the reason to avoid distracted driving is to maintain situational awareness of all of the other drivers on the road — scanning the road for surprises so that you are primed to respond rapidly if somebody loses control because they’re not looking at the road, etc.”
Drivers are distracted by their phone in 40% of all driving trips, according to data and telematics company Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which hosted the webinar.
Surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest people are confident in their own driving abilities, Winsten observed. What’s more, they believe everyone else on the road is dangerous.
Well, if that’s the case, Winsten said, the messaging from insurers, safety advocates, and society in general should be: As a driver, you need to watch out for all those other bad drivers around you. If people become more aware of their surroundings, scouting for risk, they’re not busy looking at their phones.
“I think there’s a real opportunity there,” Winsten said of the different approach to messaging. “In national public opinion surveys, repeatedly, the large majority say that they’re frightened of the other drivers on the road. I think [warning of other drivers] may be a fresh way into the same bottom line that we’re after, which is to not be distracted.”
This type of messaging would be a change from the typical warnings that have worn out their welcome, as Winsten suggests. “Just shift [the emphasis] around: Be an attentive driver to protect yourself and others on the road from crashes caused by other drivers. You’d have to frame it delicately, so as to not let the driver who is concerned about the others off the hook. But I think that’s a new way into [solving] the [messaging] problem.”
Another part of the problem is the expectation of North Americans that they always need to be connected, whether to chat with your family or stay in touch with the office. People may want to disconnect, but feel they can’t.
“In many cases, there are social pressures to remain connected,” Winsten said. “And it’s not this fear of missing out. Employers expect employees to be readily accessible. Parents expect their kids, even when they’re driving, to be readily accessible.”
Compare this to most cases of drinking and driving. Winsten called such incidents “episodic behaviour” that happens within a specific timeframe, such as a Friday or Saturday night. Unlike phone distractions, drinking while intoxicated is generally not something that happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In contrast, the moment people get in their car with their phone, they can be distracted.
“With regard to distracted driving, given the kind of digitally-connected world — that social world — within which we’re all embedded, it’s almost an unnatural act when you get into your car to set aside your access to your entire social universe, both on the business side and on the personal side,” he said. “And when you combine that with the fact that most drivers believe that they are above-average drivers who can handle multitasking, and they’re scared to death of ending up with a crash caused by the other distracted driver…they don’t think that they’re going to cause the crash.”
Feature image by iStock.com/RealPeopleGroup