With backup cameras, lane control warnings, reminders to fasten your seat belts and built-in systems to prevent drunk driving, roads in the developed world should be safer than ever before. But despite safer vehicles, traffic fatalities in the U.S. are increasing at an alarming rate, recording their biggest two-year increase in the past 50 years between 2014 and 2016. In 2017, more than 37,000 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes, including 3,600 in California.
While causes vary, the culprit behind the overall increase in auto accidents is largely distracted driving, a longstanding challenge that has grown dramatically more acute in recent years with the advent of increasingly sophisticated mobile technologies.
“In our poll, 77% [of drivers] admitted to making or taking calls while driving, and 30% had a near miss because of their own distraction. While they are driving, 20% of people we’ve polled in the Los Angeles region are shopping online. And if 20% are admitting to it, think about what the actual number is,” said Joan Woodward, president of the Travelers Institute, a public policy and thought leadership think tank established by insurance giant Travelers. “We also have pedestrian fatalities, with more than 6,000 being killed, with this toxic mix of drivers driving distracted and people walking across the street with their earbuds in.”
Woodward joined Laura Fraade-Blanar, associate policy researcher for the RAND Corporation; Charles Franklin, regional vice president of personal insurance for Travelers; and Fullerton Police Sgt. Joel Craft for a discussion on the growing challenge of distracted driving and potential technological and psychological fixes. The event, at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College on Sept. 12, 2019, and sponsored by the college’s Center for Insurance Studies, was attended both by aspiring risk management professionals and industry veterans.
Autonomous Vehicles: A Distracted-driving Solution or a Worsening Crisis?
While law enforcement agencies, insurance companies and nonprofits are encouraging drivers to keep both hands on the wheel and avoid distractions, some futurists are envisioning a time in which autonomous vehicles make the dangers of distracted driving obsolete.
“If distracted driving is to some degree a problem of technology, can more technology save us?” asked Fraade-Blanar. She argues that with the range of autonomy, from no technological tools helping the driver to full-fledged self-driving vehicles in every circumstance – which is currently an impossibility – autonomy might actually make things worse before they get better.
The Society of Automotive Engineers recognizes six levels of automation. An older car would fall at zero, while tools like emergency breaking and line spot detection are the first level. A new Tesla on autopilot would be between levels two and three, while most companies are aiming for level-four autonomy – for vehicles to be fully self-operating in certain design domains, which could be geographical, such as a certain district or city, or under certain conditions, such as daytime in ideal weather. Level five is full autonomy in all situations.
“At level zero and one, distracted driving is a big concern, because the driver is still in control. It could be argued that at level one, there is even greater concern for distracted driving, because you have systems helping you with the driving task, but it can be more distracting if you don’t know how to use the systems,” said Fraade-Blanar. “At level two, the person isn’t necessarily driving, but is watching and waiting for whenever the vehicle isn’t able to handle the situation, so it’s a very different set of tasks. The cognitive load is very different and makes it more likely for distraction to occur. That’s why we hear about crashes with autopilot on. At level three, distraction is a bit less of a concern because you might have a few more seconds to prepare. Certain level fours don’t have distracted driving concerns. And for level five, distracted driving is not a concern at all.”
Of course, that’s if level five ever truly exists – and Fraade-Blanar doubts there will ever be such a high degree of autonomy in her lifetime.
“For some degree, for level four, and certainly for all levels of autonomy below that, distracted driving is still an issue, and arguably even a bigger issue at rising levels of autonomy,” she said, noting how increasing levels of autonomy might make drivers’ complacent and less likely to react when needed.
Distracted Driving as a Hyperlocal Challenge
For Cal State Fullerton students, faculty and staff, distracted driving is an immediate, and often daily, concern.
“If you’re a student here or live or work in Fullerton, if you go to the intersection of Nutwood and Folino on a busy day, you’ll see numerous students and teachers on their phones as they’re leaving campus, causing traffic delays and missing the red lights and running the red lights,” said Sgt. Craft. “And you have pedestrians on their phones as well, walking across the crosswalk, causing a delay in traffic and at times being hit. In the past 11 years, [despite] the law on cell phone use being in effect, compliance is not there yet.”
While the Fullerton Police Department is citing distracted drivers, enforcement is nowhere near what Sgt. Craft would like to see. “Our stats are around 100 to 200 tickets per year for cell phone and distracted-driving violations,” he said. “There are two main types of violations: talking on the phone and manipulating the phone while you’re driving. You can’t use social media, type in a phone number or text on your phone [while driving]. And there is a catchall unsafe speed statute that can be used at times if a driver is traveling on a roadway, and they have a dog on their lap, or are reading a book and are distracted that way.”
Still, Sgt. Craft said that cases are difficult to prove, since in court, the police would have to show that the driver was actually talking into the phone or otherwise manipulating the technology.
The witness to dozens of serious collisions, some with devastating injuries or deaths, Sgt. Craft told attendees that his wish for manufacturers would be technology that reduces speed ahead of an impending accident.
“My experience in investigating collisions is that speed kills and any technology that we can develop and implement to reduce speed pre-impact will be greatly advantageous,” he said.
What You Can Do Today to Stay Safer on the Road
Distracted-driving might be one of the major public safety challenges of our generation, but there’s much you can do to protect yourself, your passengers, other drivers and pedestrians.
First, recognize the different types of distraction.
“Distraction can be thought of as taking your eyes off the road just for a second, taking your hands off the wheel to pick something up or fiddle with something, or cognizantly having your mind off the driving task, which is why hands-free devices aren’t a perfect solution,” said Fraade-Blanar.
And while technology use might be behind the meteoric rise in distracted-driving accidents, old-fashioned distractions are still a risk, too.
“Texting or using a telephone is only a portion of it,” said Franklin. “Distracted driving is any activity that takes you away from the main activity of safely driving your vehicle. That could include having a child in the car or even singing.”
Franklin explained that Travelers and other insurance carriers are utilizing telematics, which captures driver behavior and lets the driver see their own performance.
“We have IntelliDrive, an app that you can download on your phone to capture miles driven, hard braking and other pieces of information that have merit in several different spaces,” he said. “The driver gets a grade feedback.”
For More Information on Risk Management and Insurance
From auto insurance professionals who are at the front lines of promoting driver safety to risk managers and actuaries in many fields, the risk management and insurance industry offers many lucrative and rewarding careers for today’s young professionals, who are set to replace a retiring workforce.
Mihaylo College’s Center for Insurance Studies sponsors undergraduate- and graduate-level education in risk management and insurance, as well as professional networking opportunities for both students and industry professionals.