• Apr 7, 2011
Declining Highway Death Rate Challenges Distracted Driving Fears



The distracted driving debate is being marred by an overdose of hype and hysteria.
My weekend nearly got off to a disastrous start when a driver, busy texting, suddenly realized he was going to miss his exit. At the last possible moment, he slammed his brakes and surged across four lanes of traffic, avoiding the need to go a few miles out of the way – but nearly touching off a multi-car accident in the process.

We've all seen the texters, the women putting on makeup, the guys checking their sports scores. Heck, a woman in Florida recently crashed while giving herself a bikini shave. But are we experiencing, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood puts it, "a deadly epidemic" of distracted driving – one that can only be addressed by the most draconian of new laws?

There's no question that there are some things you just shouldn't be doing behind the wheel, and few would argue against the laws that many states have passed prohibiting motorists from texting while driving. But what other steps are needed? The latest federal data on highway fatalities suggests we've probably gone far enough – and that the distracted driving debate is being marred by an overdose of hype and hysteria.

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Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.


[Image: Corbis]

Everyone is in favor of improving highway safety, but this is a world of vested interests, each with a distinct agenda.
"If cellphones and all the other new technologies are so dangerous, why aren't we seeing carnage on the highways?" asks Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst with the consulting firm IHS. "We're not. The number of highway fatalities is lower than it has been in years."

Indeed, the federal government last week released data showing there were 33,808 highway deaths in the U.S. during 2010, a 3% decline from the year before. That's the lowest figure since 1949. And lest you attribute that to a downturn in driving because of economic hard times, the reality is that U.S. motorists reversed course in 2009 and have since been clocking more mileage. So, measured by that standard, there were just 1.09 deaths per 100 million miles driven last year, down from 1.13 in 2009 – and again the lowest number since Truman was in office.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who isn't in favor of improving highway safety, but this is a world of vested interests, each with a distinct agenda. There's Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has focused on intoxicated motorists. Insurance organizations often focus on speeding. And now there's the distracted driving lobby, as it were, with Secretary Ray LaHood at the helm.



A number of states and municipalities have already restricted the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, and there's been a flurry of regulations targeting texting.

But that's not nearly enough for proponents. The American Automobile Association, for one, would probably not be happy unless your hands were super-glued to the wheel, with a rigid frame ensuring your eyes could only look straight ahead or check the mirrors.

Even when you factor in the crackdown on drunk driving, it's hard to see where there's an all-out distracted driving epidemic buried in the numbers.
That organization – along with other advocates – thinks that any form of electronic communications should be barred while driving. So turn off your Bluetooth hands-free phone. And forget about that Sync system that can translate e-mails, text or stock prices into speech. Turn off that navigation system, as well. Even with the voice prompts turned on, it can be a distraction.

"People often tell me they're multi-taskers," says Jack Peet, a former law enforcement officer and now the traffic safety expert for AAA Michigan, "but driving is, itself, multi-tasking. Studies show you're making something like 200 decisions per mile. So, which 10 of those can you afford to miss? Maybe hitting the brakes when a child walks in front of your car?"

Given the chance, Peet would also ban many of the latest safety devices, like Active Cruise Control, Blind Spot Intervention and Lane Change Warning. Such devices, he contends, can make drivers lazy and inattentive.

Yet, it's hard to see where the data bear this out. Sure, today's cars are better designed, and modern emergency medical care is a lot better than it was when Truman was president. But even when you factor in the crackdown on drunk driving, it's hard to see where there's an all-out distracted driving epidemic buried in the numbers.

Louis Tijerina, a safety researcher for Ford, suggests that there's a lot of erroneous thinking based on questionable data. There are plenty of studies that will show you just how dangerous it is to try programming a navigation system or simply even holding a conversation. But there's a "big difference" between what you see in a lab setting compared to the real world, insists Tijerina, who suggests, "Simulator work may be artificially more difficult than the real world."

Encouraging motorists to exhibit a little common sense is probably a lot more effective than banning all forms of in-car electronics.
And, let's face it, would you rather see drivers go back to trying to interpret partially unfolded maps rather than their Tom Tom navigators?

Indeed, there's plenty of data that warns about highway fatigue. Simply staring ahead in silence can numb a driver into making potentially fatal mistakes.

That doesn't mean you should go ahead and text. And save the shave for the privacy of your own bathroom. But encouraging motorists to exhibit a little common sense – by, among other things, responding to traffic conditions – is probably a lot more effective than banning all forms of in-car electronics, especially the newest safety systems.

Besides, the police already have plenty of laws they can call on to ticket a careless or reckless driver – like the one who nearly slammed into me on I-696 – without a blanket ban on all things electronic.



Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.



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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 52 Comments
      • 3 Years Ago
      Theres a big difference between a driver falling asleep / being drunk / etc and going off road and hitting a tree sort of thing, and a driver playing with their phone and drifting out of their lane and the nearby drivers hitting the horn and taking a measures to avoid them.

      Which gets recorded? The driver hitting the tree when emergency services attend the accident scene. For the driver playing with their phone, the other drivers call him/her a clown and get on with going where they are going
      • 3 Years Ago
      What a stupid article. Lower auto deaths is a result of safer and smarter cars. Distracted driving does not ONLY result in the death of the person in an accident, but attributes to the number of accidents and deaths.

      And if the author of the article was auto accident death #33,809 for 2010, he would have a bit more respect for the actual deaths/statics that he feel are just hype.

      But his last sentence debunked his entire argument, where even with the laws he claims are the answer, a distracted driver still nearly slammed into him.

      "Besides, the police already have plenty of laws they can call on to ticket a careless or reckless driver – like the one who nearly slammed into me on I-696. . . "
        • 3 Years Ago
        I agree, the numbers speak for themselves.
      • 3 Years Ago
      The entire article is preposterous. If laws really do prevent accidents, then there isn't a valid argument against banning all things unrelated to driving while driving to ensure that no accident ever occurs.
        • 3 Years Ago
        You are correct. The article simply proves that if paid the right amount of money, you can prove or disprove anything statistically.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Where I live distracted driving (or "Driving without due care and attention") is a punishable driving offence. You don't have to cause an accident or be in one to run foul of the law - if a police officer sees you driving and not paying attention you can get pulled over and/or fined.

      Definitely that information gets recorded round here.
        • 3 Years Ago
        That was a reply to Julius...
      • 3 Years Ago
      How to stop it? More laws? Nope. Safer cars? Nope. More education? Nope.

      How about make cars so engaging to drive that theres no time to be distracted? Make this 2 tone, 70mph weapon feel like it rather than a couch. Think about it people... have you ever seen a downhill skier texting? Or a formula 1 driver checking sports scores?

      My 1990 tercel is so pitiful anything above 30 feels like the car is gonna fall apart. I dont have time to get bored or distracted, spending my entire existence just trying to keep the thing on the road.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Going to go out on a limb here and say that the pace of technological advancement in safety has outweighed the number of people texting on the road. I actually don't really see what's so bad about making a call, though. Or at least, I don't see how it's any different to call someone with a phone than with a headset.

      Someone said something about seat belt laws, but I actually don't see why seat belts are required. I mean if you text and drive, you are causing potential to crash and kill other people, but if you don't put on your seat belt, you're just endangering yourself. If we make sitting in a car without a seat belt illegal, we might as well make smoking and drinking illegal too. Hell, with alcohol there's a higher chance of hurting someone else than with not wearing a seat belt.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Lol, this is too funny. Let's see, what would Wally's neighbor say?...

      How's this:

      "I may not be able to keep up with you, but the bullet coming out of my gun will."
      • 3 Years Ago
      One of the reasons there's no numbers for distracted driving incidents is because how many people are going to actually admit what they did. They would much rather say they didn't see the car in front of them because they were daydreaming or tired then to say yea.... I was texting an essay.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Cars are safer hence less fatalities.
        Paul Eisenstein
        • 3 Years Ago
        LOL, Clavius, not to be rude, but when you can read please get back to me.
        I won't trepeat everything from a previous note, but you and so many others read into my column things that I did not say or imply.
        See my previous note for more.
        Paul E.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @ Clavius

        Thank god... I'm glad someone said it before I did. Where is the accident data? Just because text'ers are't killing people, doesn't mean they're not a f'n problem! How many accidents are occuring year over year? Cars are just getting safer and safer IMO.

        Paul, your article is worthless without both angles. Learn to write please.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Correlation =/= causation.

        Fatalities are down because cars are more survivable. Not because distracted driving isn't dangerous. Stupid and kind of irresponsible post, Mr. Eisenstein.

        • 3 Years Ago
        It's true -- you can find a statistic to prove almost any point. Personally, I tend to notice a "distracted" driver, at least one going the same direction I am, long before I'm anywhere near them. They're the ones who randomly brake every few seconds or are making noticeable steering corrections. And yes, I definitely think that serial texters drive just as bad as someone who's had 6+ drinks.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Paul E.
        I reread the article and I stand by my stance. Cars are safer hence less fatalities. I didnt feel like it at the time to point out other problems such as..
        -Most drivers won't willingly admit to texting or being on the phone when pressed as to how a accident happened. Most who are caught are seen by witness's or the driver they hit.
        -Distracted driving has been the bane of many a motorist for years if not decades. Its not new but thankfully we have Ray "The Godfather" La'Hood who seems to take his job seriously.
        -Sadly with all Automakers hyping their cars as safe with crash test stars and other do-dads (gods I just said do-dads lol) it lulls them all into feeling "safe". Lane Depature, Parking assist, this odd sleep thingy I heard about it all contributes to drivers becoming lazy and hence even more likely to become distracted.
        -A car is a mode of transportation regardless of how many miles or hours you spend in it within a week its just a car. Its not a mobile office.
        -Sadly for some reason or another GPS makers havent made a moving lock out system. Should they? 'eh I think so.. would negate those accidents that occur due to them.
        -Should all forms of electronics be banned within cars. Yes and no. Yes its a slippery slope but it goes back to what I said about a car being a mode of transportation and not a mobile office.

        Again in the long run the stat's of fatalies or carnage boils down to the cars being safer. Its why we don't have cars flipped over on their roofs with drivers clenching onto their cell phones and whatnot. That and well people lie. Not everyone is honest when telling police officers and insurance as to what was going on before the accident happened.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I think this sentence points to the main issue with this article and it's implied conclusions.

        Distracted driving is not the only variable that affects crashes or fatalities. Trying to argue that one explanatory variable isn't causing an increase in the response variable because the response variable is decreasing ignores the fact that there are many other explanatory variables impacting the response variable.

        The safety of cars, the performance of cars, the myriad of other causes all have an impact on the number of crashes and fatalities, and this article fails to consider how any of them have changed in recent years.

        At the same time, obtaining accurate data about the exact causes of crashes is difficult, because people lie, especially in situations where what they say can determine how much they pay.

        Another example of impressive statistics use in journalism.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I remember reading about people who opposed mandatory wearing of seatbelts - they produced statistics showing that wearing seatbelts lead to higher numbers of spinal injuries when in a car accident, and therefore wearing one made you less safe in a car.

        What they conviently chose to ignore was that those people coming out with spinal injuries would otherwise have DIED if they hadn't been wearing a seatbelt.

        As they say: there are lies, damn lies, and statistics....
        • 3 Years Ago
        I'm an urban pedestrian - a good 4-5 miles a day. And I've have more than a few close shaves with motorists who are absorbed enough by their phones that they nearly hit me. I become invisible in the vicinity of a motorist's phone.

        I have dreams of someday ripping the phone from the hands of an inattentive motorist and informing the person on the other end that her conversation partner just killed someone. Then I'd drop the phone into a sewer.
      • 3 Years Ago
      One reason is that accident reports are not accurate. Drivers lie; police accept those lies. Police officers, overburdened by paperwork, do the absolute minimum to get their reports approved. For example: A cyclist was hit by a driver wandered off the road while texting and who then denied it in to the police office. He accepted it, even though she told the cyclist that she hit him because she was texting. So, I think the input "data" is highly suspect. Also, accident data for cyclist related injuries and deaths in NM showed that accident reports were incomplete or incomprehensible. Bottom line: garbage in, garbage out!
      • 3 Years Ago
      "Simply staring ahead in silence can numb a driver into making potentially fatal mistakes."

      Make more curvy roads! :)
      Paul Eisenstein
      • 3 Years Ago
      Wally, That's one of the strangest observations I've had someone make, but you just saved me countless thousands of dollars in potential psychiatric counseling. Much appreciated.
      Paul E.
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