A new federal study finds that at any given moment of daylight, 660,000 U.S. drivers are using their phones for talking, texting, directions or Angry Birds — a figure that hasn't changed since 2010, despite 39 states with some kind of cellphone ban for drivers, a drumbeat of public service campaigns and polls showing most people consider the practice dangerous.
The data comes from surveys conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also surveyed 6,000 drivers about their attitudes toward electronics in cars. Nearly all — 94 perecent — supported bans on texting, and 74 percent backed laws banning all hand-held cellphone use, with suggested fines averaging $200.
Yet that survey also showed why the problem persists, with 59 percent of drivers saying they take a call at least once in a while behind the wheel, most of whom keep driving while talking, with half of them believe it doesn't affect their driving. Far fewer people admit to texting or emailing — 15 percent — and unlike cellphone use, most people say they would feel unsafe if riding in a car with someone who was texting.
Safety advocates have pushed for tougher laws to stop the practice, with 10 states now banning handheld cellphone use behind the wheel. But many of those laws have proven difficult to enforce and often confusing; last month, a California appeals court ruled that the Golden State's handheld cellphone ban included any use of the phone — including maps and directions — and not just calling or texting.
And the government's own data suggests the focus on the evil of cellphones rather than a broader fight against distractions on the road may be necessary. NHTSA statistics found that distractions of all forms while driving led to the deaths of 3,331 people in 2011 and 387,000 injuries. But only 12 percent of fatalities — 385 — and 5 percent of injuries were tied directly to cellphone use. The rest were blamed on other ways a driver can lose focus — from talking to passengers to changing the radio.
These numbers suggest the problem with driving while distracted isn't that people aren't listing to safety warnings. It's that even with new laws, and years of public service messages, a majority of drivers find the risks of palming an iPhone less than the rewards of staying in contact — especially as commutes on congested roads steal 38 hours a year from the average driver, a time tax that's only expected to rise. It's hard to pay attention when there's nothing to see but traffic jams.
- Politics & Government