NMA E-Newsletter #223: New Studies Provide Insight on Distracted Driving

With police and policymakers fixated on stopping cell-phone use while driving, one might conclude that all other potential driving distractions have been miraculously eliminated. (Click here to read about how far police will go to enforce cell phone and anti-texting laws.)

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to a new study from the Erie Insurance Group, the number one cause of distraction-related highway fatalities in the United States is daydreaming. The study, which analyzed two years of NHTSA fatality data (2010-2011), found that 62 percent of distraction-related highway fatalities were due to being “generally distracted or lost in thought.” By comparison, cell-phone use contributed to only 12 percent of distraction-related highway fatalities.

So, should we ban daydreaming behind the wheel? It sounds absurd, but some misguided lawmaker may try. And based on the results of bans already in place, it wouldn’t work anyway.

The Erie study also found that stimuli outside the vehicle (objects, persons or events) contributed to seven percent of distraction-related fatalities. Coincidentally, results from another recently released Canadian study shed light on the potential impact of this kind of distraction.

Researchers at the University of Alberta found that billboard messaging had a profound impact on driver distraction and driving performance. Messages with positive emotional connotations sharpened driver attention, while messages with negative emotional connotations blunted attention and resulted in distracted driving behavior.

A news release, citing comments from lead study author Michelle Chan, summed up the results:

Chan contends that emotional distraction while driving may come from anything from music to news to conversations, so it would be hard to legislate against those types of factors. Self-regulation on the images and language marketers use on billboards could be one way to reduce potential for emotionally related vehicular incidents. 

Ultimately, she says, drivers need to take responsibility for their actions behind the wheel, even if it means reducing the usual driving stimuli such as talking or listening to the radio.

“Any kind of distraction is risky when you’re driving. But there would appear to be a larger risk when it comes to emotional stimuli.”

Chan’s views mirror those of the NMA: Drivers face so many kinds of distractions that selectively legislating against one potentially risky activity is ineffective and counter-productive. Chan’s findings also show that potential distractions can come from what’s going on outside the vehicle, not just from what’s going on inside. This seems obvious to us, but given the current obsession with banning certain in-vehicle behaviors, you would never know it.

We don’t want to ban billboards (although a drive along Wisconsin’s bucolic highways would be more pleasant without them). We do, however, urge traffic planners and policymakers to address driver distraction and confusion stemming from cluttered visual environments.

The over-application of highway signage/markings has been shown to increase accidents. In contrast, open traffic designs, with minimal or no signage, can significantly reduce accidents. (See this newsletter for a fascinating case study.) The reason? When drivers are freed from micromanagement, they assume greater responsibility for their own actions. This naturally leads to safer, more attentive behavior behind the wheel.

The NMA’s position on distracted driving is clear: Distracted driving can best be addressed through efforts to educate the public about its dangers. Enforcement can be useful to a degree, but banning specific actions behind the wheel is unnecessary. Distracted driving is distracted driving, regardless of the cause. If a motorist demonstrates a lack of control of his vehicle and is a safety risk, there are distracted driving laws on the books of all states that allow law enforcement to pull that driver over.

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