Handheld Driver Distractions Prove Irrestible, CDC Survey Finds

Curb It Click It mobile phone signIf you have noticed while passing auto traffic that an increasing number of drivers are focusing on their mobile device instead of the road, the Centers for Disease Control wants you to know that you’re not mistaken. According to surveys in 2011, 31% of drivers in the United States reported reading or sending a text or e-mail message while driving. About one-fifth of them report doing so on a frequent basis. Given that only 69% of respondents reported talking while driving, one can assume either some serious under-reporting, or else a sample that’s hardly representative of Southern California drivers.

We know distracted driving is a problem. We don’t need Ray LaHood at USDOT to tell us. He’s focused his agency on addressing the waxing threat, and that’s all to the good as far as we’re concerned. But taking a two-wheel spin around the Los Angeles area and you feel it in your bones: drivers just aren’t paying attention like they should.

You know the signs: delayed takeoff at the green light; panicked stops in slow-go traffic; and of course, the glow in car after car of those handheld screens in the long queues in rush hour congestion. Riding a bike offers one a literal window into a space that we take for granted is private but which reveals driver behaviors that have no place behind the wheel in hectic traffic. Personal grooming, for example.

So it is with mixed feelings that we see figures from the Centers for Disease control that affirm our casual observation but also give us serious pause because driving-while-distracted is an even bigger problem than we thought. Data was collected in a Spring 2011 ‘HealthStyles’ survey (n=8,110) and again in the Fall (n=3,696) and then the sample weighted to reflect the national driving population. Respondents were asked:

In the past 30 days, how often have you talked on your cell phone while you were driving?” and “In the past 30 days, how often have you read or sent a text message or e-mail while you were driving?


The Findings

According to the CDC, in 2011 more than two thirds of U.S. adult drivers (aged 18–64) years reported they had talked on their cell phone while driving at least once in the past 30 days, and nearly one-third of all surveyed drivers reported that they had read or sent text or e-mail messages while driving at least once in the past 30 days.

Diced and sliced by age, a significantly larger percentage of both men and women aged 25–44 years reported talking on a cell phone while driving compared with those aged 55–64 years, and a significantly larger percentage of men and women aged 18–34 years reported that they had read or sent text or e-mail messages while driving compared with those aged 45–64 years.

The CDC notes that the findings confirm other national studies, including a 2010 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety telephone survey that found that in the previouis 30 days, 69% of drivers had used a cell phone while driving and 24% had texted while driving.

It is a testament to Ray LaHood’s leadership on the distracted driving issue that the CDC is even asking. Yet only thirty-three U.S. states and the District of Columbia had laws restricting at least some teens or new drivers from using electronic devices while driving, but few extend to adult drivers.

Chart of Talking-driving citations Beverly Hills 2012
Better Bike chart from BHPD data.

Where is the enforcement? Beverly Hills issues on average nearly 1,200 red light citations every month, but according to data for 2012 barely issues 80 talk-drive citations on average per month. And those 80 citations are the monthly average over the entire year. In the Fall, citations for operating a handheld phone dipped to only one per day (see the chart above). This is in Beverly Hills, where it’s a most common occurrence! But it is the downward enforcement trend through 2012 that suggests BHPD inattention.

It is not like we don’t have a law against it: the state’s Wireless Communications Device Law (vehicle code §23123.5) took effect in 2009 to make it illegal to write, send, or even read a text on a mobile phone while driving. The law for talking on a handheld phone (§23123) is hardly enforced, too, and that one has been on the books for nearly five years.

The federal authorities have identified distracted driving a serious threat for good reason: it’s epidemic. Motorists have a couple of tons of steel to protect them where the traffic cops don’t. But what about those who choose to ride? We’re simply unprotected against the driver who feels it more important to talk or text than to watch the road.

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