Does Driver Distraction Run Deeper Than Just Cell Phones?

by Terry Bryant

All kinds of sidebar stories came out this past April, which was Distracted Driving Month. One story that piqued our interest starts with an insurance company study which concluded that over the past five years, one in 10 vehicle accidents was caused by distracted driving.

Aside from the suspicion that “one in 10” might be too low, that’s not the real story about Erie Insurance’s research. After reviewing crash data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a nationwide census of fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Erie then consulted with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) (the industry’s in-house research arm) and came to a startling conclusion.

Erie submits that being “generally distracted” or “lost in thought” heads the top-ten list as the number-one distraction that led to all fatal crashes.  Here’s their complete list:

1. Generally distracted or “lost in thought” (daydreaming) 61%
2. Cell phone use (talking, listening, dialing, texting) 14%
3. Outside person, object, or event, such as rubbernecking 6%
4. Other occupants (talking with or looking at other people in car) 5%
5. Using or reaching for device brought into vehicle such as navigational device, headphones 2%
6. Adjusting audio or climate controls 1%
7. Eating or drinking 1%
8. Using other device/controls integral to vehicle, such as adjusting rear view mirrors, seats, or using OEM navigation system 1%
9. Moving object in vehicle, such as pet or insect 0%
10. Smoking-related (includes smoking, lighting up, putting ashes in ashtray) 0%

The FARS data was taken from police accident reports during the years 2012-2016. Erie Insurance performed similar analysis for the years 2007-2011 and published it in 2012. It then compared the earlier research with the revisited data to see if the types (or order) of distractions had changed over the years. The analysis found little difference in the types of distractions and percentages between the two studies.

“We’re always looking after our customers; we want to not only insure their cars but also protect their lives,” said Jon Bloom, Vice President of Personal Auto, Erie Insurance, “so that’s why we’re drawing attention to the dangers of distracted driving, including driving while daydreaming.”

Are These Startling Numbers Accurate?

According to medical, psychological, and actuarial research, there are three unique types of driving-related distractions. They are:

  • Visual: where drivers take their eyes off the road
  • Manual: when drivers take their hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive: when drivers let their minds wander from driving.

Daydreaming could certainly fall into the cognitive category.  And we don’t discount a person’s wandering mind as a factor in the epidemic of distraction-related accidents – but six out of every 10 fatal accidents? That’s an awfully large number to be attributed to such an elusive and indistinct term relative to the other more specific causes on Erie’s list such as …

  • Cell phone activity: 14%
  • Navigational and/or adjusting audio controls: two separate categories that account for lots of driver-related activity, combining for only 3%.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these numbers is that parsing out the exact number of crashes caused by distraction is difficult. Many of the categories listed above could be subjective, but the evidence is mounting that distraction – in all its forms – makes up a greater portion of crashes than we previously believed.

Maybe in the years to come, we’ll find more scientific methods for establishing crash causes. In the meantime, drivers should do their best to eliminate distracting activities from their driving habits.

If you or a family member has been hit by a distracted driver, the Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law is available to evaluate your case free of charge. Contact us anytime via phone, chat, or webform.