For years now safety experts have preached to drivers about the dangers of texting behind the wheel. And though people still do it, many are getting the message. Fewer admit to doing it than in the past.
But the danger isn't going away, and it appears to be tied directly to the smartphone. Drivers – especially young drivers – aren't texting as much because they are too busy using apps while they drive.
A survey released this month by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students against Destructive Driving (SADD) found just 27% of teen drivers report texting behind the wheel but 68% admit to using an app, usually reading or posting to social media.
Needless to say, the experts stress, that's not just as bad – it's worse. But teen drivers overwhelmingly don't see it that way. Eighty percent of the teens in the study insist that using an app while driving is not distracting.
Not a distraction, teens say
“Teens as a whole are saying all the right things, but implicitly believe that using their phone while driving is safe and not a stressor or distraction behind the wheel,” said Dr. Gene Beresin, senior advisor on adolescent psychiatry with SADD.
Teens aren't the only offenders. Plenty of adults of all ages have been caught texting or posting to Snapchat behind the wheel. A Pennsylvania TV station aired a photo supplied by a viewer that appears to show a woman steering with one foot while she uses both hands to access her smartphone.
Newly-passed state laws against texting while driving appear to have had little impact, even though insurance companies will raise your rates should you be ticketed for an infraction.
The SADD study suggests many teens consider navigation and music apps on their phones as “utilities,” lessening the perception of dangers of accessing them while driving. Vehicle Bluetooth systems that provide hands-free access for smartphone apps through the vehicle's infotainment system may have fostered what some believe to be a false sense of security.
A 2013 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found even hands-free devices are dangerous, because the mental workload and distractions can slow reaction. Drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.
It is in this light that automakers are speeding up efforts to produce self-driving cars. While some safety advocates worry these autonomous vehicles will be inherently dangerous, there are plenty of others who think they will make the roads safer, because the people who would ordinarily be driving them are in the back seat, updating their Facebook profiles.
In the meantime, insurance companies make clear that it isn't just texting that is the problem. It's the device itself, and all the things a driver may be tempted to do with it. Dr. William Horrey, a research scientist at Libery Mutual, says it's not the apps that pose the danger. It's how people interact with them.