Back in 2012, California drivers were asked what the biggest problem on the road was. While 95% of them mentioned drivers under the influence of drugs and alcohol, their No. 1 fear was drivers distracted by talking and texting.
New laws, more vigorous enforcement and heightened public awareness reduced the incidents of bad behavior. But it’s starting to look like old times.
A survey (pdf)—conducted for the state Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) and the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center–University of California, Berkeley—found a 39% increase in the number of distracted drivers compared to a year ago. A hefty 9.2% of drivers were seen using their cellphones for some form of yapping or tapping, compared to 6.6% in 2014. It hadn’t been that high since 2012, when 10.8% showed off their multi-tasking skills.
Distracted drivers come in different flavors. Some are doing something blatantly illegal, like holding a cellphone to their ear or manipulating it while driving. Others are observing dashboard GPS, chatting on Bluetooth or doing something perfectly legal. The survey took note and found an increase in every category compared to a year ago.
Phone-to-ear increased 55%, although that can be a deceivingly large number. The portion of drivers doing that increased from 1.1% to 1.7%. (Divide the difference by the first number.) Talking on a hand-held device increased from 0.7% to 1.0%, manipulating a hand-held device climbed from 2.2% to 3.3% and talking with a headset or Bluetooth jumped from 2.5% to 3.3%.
What can be done about this road menace? OTS Director Rhonda Craft said, “We will continue our aggressive public outreach campaign and our partnership with law enforcement to educate the public about the dangers of those who drive distracted and put the lives of others at risk.”
So people might get smarter but probably continue to drive stupider unless there is an intervention of another sort, perhaps technological or legislative.
One intervention was conducted in April, during National Distracted Drivers Awareness Month, when “approximately 250 law enforcement agencies across California ticketed more than 46,000 drivers using a cellphone while driving—roughly double the number of tickets issued during the average month,” according to OTS..
The survey was conducted between February 21 and April 6 by street observers at 130 sites, including 27 along highways, in 17 counties. They made 5,349 observations (905 in Los Angeles County, 643 in Orange County, 629 in Alameda County). For purposes of the study, they noted gender, age and race as well as cellphone habits. Results were compared to data going back to 2011.
Gender, region and time of day did not appear to make a significant difference. But age, not surprisingly, did. Only one person 16-24 was observed holding a phone to their ear in 2014; this year 14 were spotted. That got a shoutout in the report’s summary introduction. “Overall, younger drivers are displaying significantly more electronic device use,” the report noted elsewhere.
The survey also counted how many people were in each car observed, and may have recorded a sociological trend that goes hand in hand with auto cellphone use. Cars are becoming lonelier places.
The percentage of solo drivers climbed from 68.2% to 73% since last year, the highest level in five years of study. Two-person cars dropped from 25.5% to 22.0%. Three-person cars declined from 4.6% to 3.5% and those with four fell from 1.4% to 1.2%.
But you’re never alone when you have your phone. You can ask Siri about that.