Personal relationships could be key to ending distracted driving

Leveraging friendship and family ties could help end distracted driving, a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows.

A multifaceted approach — including strengthening laws, enforcement and the use of interpersonal relationships to remind people of the dangers of not being attentive behind the wheel — could help put an end to the behavior, IIHS said.

“Many drivers still don’t realize how dangerous it is to check a text message or glance at their Instagram feed while they’re zipping along the road,” said IIHS Research Associate Aimee Cox, who led the study.

In 2020, 3,000 people died in distraction-related crashes — accounting for 8 percent of all U.S. traffic fatalities, according to data from NHTSA. The study by IIHS examined why some drivers are more likely to use their phones than others, and what might convince them to stop this behavior.

The study included 60 questions used to identify how 2,013 U.S. participants felt about several categories associated with distracted driving, including:

• How strong a threat they perceived using a mobile device to be when driving

• Benefits they believed can be derived from eliminating device usage

• Barriers preventing them from changing their behavior

• Calls to action that might prompt them to change their behavior

In answering these questions, most drivers agreed that distracted driving increases the risk of crash, major injury and damage to their vehicle. Most also agreed they would be motivated to reduce their behavior if someone they cared about reminded them that they might hurt or kill another person driving distracted.

Drivers who reported regularly interacting with a device behind the wheel perceived the threat to be less severe, and saw barriers to ending the behavior as greater.

“Conventional, practical policy interventions that increase your chances of getting caught using your device when you shouldn’t — whether that means stronger laws, increased enforcement or camera-based ticketing — definitely have a big role to play in reducing distracted driving,” Cox said in a statement. “But these survey responses suggest that programs that leverage interpersonal relationships may also be effective.”

IIHS pointed to a program developed by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute as an example of how to leverage these relationships. The Drive Smart program encourages parents to form a contract with their children agreeing to avoid distracted driving.

Gig workers indicated that the requirements of their jobs are one of the largest barriers preventing them from putting down their phone, while other drivers were neutral or disagreed with job requirements being a barrier to ignoring their device. Workplace policies that discourage employees — such as ride-share and delivery drivers — from distracted driving are more promising, IIHS concluded.

An earlier study from IIHS showed one in five iPhone users reported availing themselves of Apple’s opt-in Do Not Disturb setting automatically when driving. Fear of missing essential features, like messages from their workplace, could be why more drivers don’t take advantage of this functionality, IIHS said.

Vehicle manufacturers and system designers are pivoting to the use of voice-activated artificial intelligence and integrated controls — like Siri and Apple CarPlay — to keep the attention of drivers off their devices. Settings can be controlled to allow the application to screen out less important notifications while enabling others to come through.

But previous IIHS research has shown that even voice-controlled systems don’t eliminate risks associated with distracted driving — it still takes some of the driver’s attention away from the road.

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