Drivers distracted by phone in more than half of trips ending in crash, study finds

Drivers were paying attention to their phone instead of the road at some point during more than half of all trips ending in a crash, according to a behavioral analytics company.

Cambridge Mobile Telematics recently announced this finding after studying data collected from its smartphone apps. This information included 1,000 verified crashes, tens of thousands of near misses, and billions of miles of vehicle miles traveled.

The company is the developer of the DriveWell program, which is used in many safe driving apps and programs. These apps automatically record phone sensor data during a drive, then provide feedback to visitors to make them more aware of their driving performance and any risks they are taking. The programs records information such as phone use during the trip, excessive speed, and hard braking, acceleration, or cornering.

Among the 1,000 verified crashes, Cambridge Mobile Telematics determined that phone distraction had occurred in 52 percent of the trips. The average driver was distracted for 135 seconds of the trip prior to the crash.

Forty percent of drivers who were distracted during a trip took their attention away from the road for more than a minute. Twenty percent were distracted for two minutes or more.

Twenty-nine percent of drivers were distracted when traveling faster than 56 miles per hour. The study said that texting, social media, and e-mail were the most common forms of distraction.

A driver using their phone while driving was 3.4 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a driver who wasn't distracted by the device. The most distracted drivers—those who were more distracted than 90 percent of the population—were 5.8 times more likely than the average driver to be involved in a crash. The rest of the population defined as distracted was still 2.3 times more likely than the average driver to be involved in a crash.

The elevated crash risk due to phone distraction was often higher than other types of risky driving. Cambridge Mobile Telematics found that at-risk speeding, or traveling significantly faster than the posted speed limit, multiplied the chance of a crash by three. Hard braking increased the likelihood of a crash by 1.8 times.

The study found that laws aimed at combating phone use while driving resulted in only a marginal improvement in safety. The average amount of distraction per 100 miles of driving was 3.17 minutes in states that have banned the use of all handheld devices while behind the wheel. The average distraction was 3.25 minutes in states where drivers under the age of 18 are forbidden from using handheld devices while driving, and 3.82 minutes in states with no restrictions.

Connecticut drivers averaged between two and 2.9 minutes of distracted driving per 100 miles. South Dakota and Hawaii had the highest rate of distraction, with more than five minutes of phone distraction per 100 miles.

Hari Balakrishnan, chief technology officer at Cambridge Mobile Telematics, said some smartphone apps can help reduce distraction. He said apps designed to reduce distraction use contests, leaderboards, achievement goals, and other incentives to encourage responsible driving behavior.

"Distracted driving due to smartphone use is intuitively blamed for the increase in road crashes and [insurance] claims," said Balakrishnan. "What's less intuitive is that smartphones hold the solution to the problem they created. Drivers now have access to tools that analyze their driving and achieve real behavioral change through immediate and ongoing feedback."

Balakrishnan said phone distraction among DriveWell users falls by 35 percent within the first 30 days. At-risk speeding and hard braking fell by 20 percent during the same period.

Other apps intended to reduce distraction include functions such as disabling features once the vehicle reaches a certain speed, sending alerts to indicate when the phone was being used during driving, or sending automatic replies when a text is received.


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