Car Wrecks Rise as Phones Divert Drivers’ Eyes

Auto Insurance, Insurance
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America’s roads are increasingly dangerous, with the number of car crashes increasing every year and reaching nearly 6.3 million in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That’s up from about 5.3 million accidents in 2011.

The rise in crashes is attributed to several factors, including an increase in driving overall, but one of safety advocates’ top concerns is distracted driving. A recent poll supports those worries: A majority of people admitted to driving distracted at some point during the past year, according to a Harris Poll survey conducted for a NerdWallet report on the state of driving in America.

» MORE: Your personality may affect — geez, look out! — distracted driving

Cell phones are our biggest distraction

Mobile phones help us connect with the world, but many of us continue to stay connected while driving, too. Two-thirds (67%) of Americans who have driven in the past 12 months said they had used a cell phone while driving, according to NerdWallet’s survey.

And this distraction is taking a toll: 14% of all fatal “distraction-affected” crashes involved cell phone use in 2015, the latest year for which data is available from the Department of Transportation.

“We all want to see these alarming accident numbers reversed,” says Robert Passmore, assistant vice president of personal lines policy for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade group. “For that to happen, our driving habits need to change. Putting down our smartphones and staying focused on the road can reduce accidents.”

Among those in NerdWallet’s survey who used a cell phone while driving, 38% said they had texted while driving, including using voice-to-text options. Texting while driving is perhaps the best-known distraction and has been banned in 46 states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But cell phone use that contributes to crashes may be underreported, according to the National Safety Council, for reasons including:

  • In many cases, police officers rely on drivers to admit cell phone use
  • Officers may not report cell phone use if it’s not a violation in their area or if more serious or obvious violations are committed
  • Crash reports might not be updated if an investigation later finds that cell phone use contributed to the accident

According to NerdWallet’s survey, of those who used a cell phone while driving in the past year, 13% said they weaved in and out of lanes, almost went off the road, almost had an accident or did have an accident.

» MORE: Who’s going to pay for that? Maybe you (and your insurance)

Other driving distractions

Among Americans who have driven in the past 12 months, 62% said they were distracted by something other than a cell phone — including a majority (58%) who said that they ate behind the wheel and 10% admitted to performing personal care, such as shaving, applying makeup or caring for their nails, the NerdWallet survey found.

Driving distractions other than cell phones

Among Americans who have driven in the past 12 months, 62% admit to doing at least one of the following:
Eating58%
Grooming: Shaving,
nail care or applying makeup
10%
Caring for a child in the back seat9%
Using a laptop or tablet7%
Changing clothes5%
Getting intimate4%
Drinking alcohol4%
Reading a book, newspaper or magazine4%
Putting foot out window or both feet on dash while using cruise control3%
Playing an instrument1%
Source: Survey conducted May 3-5, 2017, by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one activity.

» MORE: NerdWallet’s 2017 Driving in America report

Staying focused when others aren’t

If you have an iPhone, Apple may soon help you become a less-distracted driver: The new iOS 11 operating system, set to be released this fall, includes a feature that can detect when you’re driving and will silence notifications.

There are also smartphone apps to help you avoid distracted driving, including:

  • SafeDrive, an app that turns safe driving into a game, allowing you to earn points you can trade in for discounts on products and services
  • DriveMode by AT&T is available for customers of all cell phone carriers in English and Spanish. It will silence alerts and auto-reply to text messages while you drive; similar apps are available from Sprint and Verizon (Android only).
  • LifeSaver is an app for parents who want to monitor a teenager’s driving. It locks the phone while the teen is driving and sends notifications when they have arrived at a destination. It’s also available for businesses with fleets of vehicles.

Passengers can help curb distracted driving, too. A recent survey commissioned by Travelers Insurance found that 48% of passengers said that they always or often speak up when they’re riding with someone who’s using a phone while driving.

“I think that’s very encouraging,” says Chris Hayes, second vice president of transportation risk control for Travelers. “Passengers should feel they have a stake with each ride.”

Lacie Glover is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: lacie@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LacieWrites.