Thursday, June 6, 2013

When beliefs and actions are misaligned - the case of distracted driving

Originally posted to the invisiblegorilla blog on 22 December 2010. I am gradually reposting all of my earlier blog posts from other sites onto my personal website where I will be blogging for the foreseeable future. The post is unedited from the 2010 version.

During the summer of 2010, the California Office of Traffic Safety conducted a survey of 1671 drivers at gas stations throughout California. The survey asked drivers about their own driving behavior and perceptions of driving risks. Earlier this year I posted about the apparent contradiction between what we know and what we do—people continue to talk and text while driving despite awareness of the dangers. The California survey results (pdf) reinforce that conclusion.
59.5% of respondents listed talking on a phone (hand held or hands free) as the most serious distraction for drivers. In fact, 45.8% of respondents admitted to making a mistake while driving and talking on a phone, and 54.6 claimed to have been hit or almost hit by someone talking on a phone. People are increasingly aware of the dangers. As David Strayer has shown, talking on a phone while driving is roughly comparable to driving under the influence of alcohol (pdf). Yet, people continue to talk on the phone while driving.
Unlike some earlier surveys that only asked general questions about phone use, this one asked how often the respondents talked on a phone in the past 30 days. 14.0% report regularly talking on a hand-held phone (now illegal) and another 29.4% report regularly talking on a hands-free phone. Fewer than 50% report never talking on a hands free phone while driving (and only 52.8% report never talking on hand-held phones). People know that they are doing something dangerous, but they do it anyway (at least sometimes).
Fewer people report texting while driving than talking while driving: 9.4% do so regularly, 10.4% do so sometimes, and another 10.6% do so rarely. In other words, more than 30% of subjects still text while driving, at least on occasion, even though texting is much more distracting than talking and is substantially worse than driving under the influence.
68% of respondents thought that a hands-free conversation is safer than a hand-held one, a mistaken but unfortunately common belief. The misconception is understandable given that almost all laws regulating cell phones while driving focus on hand-held phones. The research consistently shows little if any benefit from using a hands-free phone—the distraction is in your head, not your hands.
Fortunately, there is hope that education (and perhaps regulation) can help. The extensive education campaigns about mandatory seatbelt use and the dangers of drunk driving have had an effect over the years: 95.8% report always using a seat belt, and only 1% report never wearing a seatbelt. Only 5.9% reported having driven when they thought they had already had too much alcohol to drive safely.
Sources cited:
Strayer, D., Drews, F., & Crouch, D. (2006). A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 48 (2), 381-391 DOI: 10.1518/001872006777724471