- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2008

July Fourth is the deadliest driving day of the year, according to the most recent data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And a new study by Nationwide Insurance delivers unsettling news for anyone on the road on July 4.

Of the drivers polled, 98 percent think they are safe drivers, yet 72 percent are guilty of driving while distracted. More than four out of five cell phone owners are guilty of talking on their phones while driving. Further, almost 80 percent have been in a vehicle with distracted drivers and more than 40 percent have been hit or almost hit by another driver who was talking on a cell phone while driving.

People of all ages are guilty. Well over half of all generations admitted to doing things like talking on a phone or eating while driving. That broke down to 78 percent of Generation Y drivers (ages 18 to 30), 80 percent of Generation X drivers (ages 31 to 44), and 65 percent of Baby Boomers (ages of 45 to 61).

“We appear to be approaching a point where partaking in other activities is so common that we don’t consider them distracting or dangerous anymore,” said Bill Windsor, associate vice president of safety for Nationwide Insurance. “But Americans need to realize that there is no such thing as safe driving while distracted.”

A major 2006 study found that nearly 80 percent of crashes, and 65 percent of near-crashes, involved some form of driver inattention, such as cell phone use and drowsiness, within three seconds before the event. The study was co-sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Virginia Transportation Research Council and Virginia Tech.

As Windsor points out, if you are driving 60 mph and take your eyes off the road for three seconds, you will drive the equivalent length of a football field without knowing what’s going on around you.

Last year with its first study, Nationwide found high numbers of drivers who were distracted by talking on cell phones, sending text messages, reading the newspaper and even shaving while driving. This year’s survey of 1,503 drivers between the ages of 16 and 61 looked deeper into why we do it: Because it’s there.

The availability of technology was mentioned by 35 percent as the reason distracted driving is so common, and 48 percent considered cell phones and other technology use to be the most dangerous distraction.

Use of technology extends to text messages and e-mail. Nearly 40 percent of teens, defined as ages 16 and 17 in this study, and Gen Y drivers who own cell phones, admit to text messaging while driving, which requires even more attention than talking. Multitasking was noted by 22 percent and having too much to do was cited by 30 percent as reasons for talking on cell phones while driving.

Nearly half of teens and Gen Y drivers blamed having to stay connected socially as a reason why they drive while distracted. For boomers, the pressure was more work-related.

Perhaps we need to “get over” ourselves, so to speak, and admit that we are not indispensable at work and not all that interesting to our friends.

The study also looked at how to curb these behaviors. When asked what would most successfully prevent cell phone use while driving, respondents were closely split between technology that would automatically prevent devices from working in the car (43 percent) and laws banning their use while driving (42 percent).

Another just-released study, however, showed that laws might not keep teens from talking and texting.

The study, done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that teen cell phone use increased in North Carolina after that state enacted a cell phone ban for young drivers.

“The bottom line is if your eyes are off the road, your hands are off the steering wheel or your mind is somewhere else, you are guilty of distracted driving. And Americans need to realize that they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to curbing driving while distracted,” Windsor said.

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