The Coming Epidemic: Part 1, A View of the Future

Guest Bloggers

Guest Bloggers | Jan 06, 2011

By Paul Atchley

I would like to thank David Strayer and the Car Talk crew for the invitation to contribute to the Distracted Driving blog. It is a pleasure to be here and talk about our work and comment on distracted driving. My focus as a cognitive scientist has been on applied issues since the beginning of my career when I interned at NASA-Ames working with U.S. Army helicopter pilots. My graduate training at the University of California, Riverside was on visual perception and driving in older adults, and my work as a postdoc at the University of Illinois was on attention. I became interested in distracted driving about 10 years ago when I noticed that some of the attentional deficits we saw in older adults looked like the sort of attentional deficits a younger distracted driver experiences. We published that work in a special issue on distracted driving that David co-edited and since then my lab at the University of Kansas has been working on related issues, some of which I will talk about here.

Reading the Sunday comics this past New Year made me think of Dick Tracy. We now live in an era in which two-way wrist TVs are a reality, at least if you mount your iPhone to your wrist. While Dick Tracy was using his wrist TV to foil evil-doers, ours are used for more mundane tasks.

If you are like me, your view of technology may be closer to Dick Tracy than to that of the ever-connected generation who started texting at age 10. I am right there with you. But if we want to understand the scope of the distraction epidemic, we should consider some hard numbers about how much a younger user uses his or her phone while driving.

Over the last two years we have been asking younger drivers (college students) to tell us anonymously about their distracted driving habits as well as their attitudes about driving while distracted. This is a great group of drivers to survey because they represent the future of our roads, and they are typically very candid about their behaviors.

In one study funded by the KU Transportation Research Institute we looked at talking and driving. Every young driver (except one) reported that they talk on the phone and drive. They tell us they know it's dangerous, but they do it anyway. This is bad enough but it gets worse. We also asked if they text and drive. We thought there might be a few, but 70% of the young drivers reported that they text and drive. I didn't think those numbers could not be right and so did a follow-up study with a new set of drivers and confirmed the result.

In fact, the 70% figure just represents drivers who report initiating texts while the car is moving. Another 11% report they will respond to a text if they get one, and another 11% report they read texts while the vehicle is moving. And if you ask them if they do any of these things while they are at a stop sign or stoplight, 98% of the drivers surveyed said they text and drive.

Oh, and 75% of them are using both hands when they text. These numbers are probably high for anyone over the age of 30, but if you live in a college town, the thought of 25,000 drivers hitting the roads texting is pretty scary. But also consider that as these drivers age, they will become the "normal" drivers, and the younger generation of drivers following them will be even more keen to text, meaning we will all be living in a college town.

Why are so many young drivers engaging is such a dangerous behavior? That will be the subject of the next post.

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