Originally published in Fleet Management Weekly 04/06/22
Distracted driving isn’t just bad for people, it’s bad for business
By Paul Atchley, PhD, eDriving’s Brain Science Advisor
Distracted Driving Awareness Month (April) is a good time to take stock of the current status of road safety in the United States, think about progress toward zero fatalities on our roads, and examine how we are doing as we tackle threats to safety, old and new.
This March, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its analysis of motor vehicle crash data from 2020, which provides us a good look at where we are. The results are not encouraging.
The NHTSA data shows an 11 percent decrease in road miles driven due to the pandemic which resulted in 22 percent fewer crashes and 17 percent fewer injuries, but fatalities actually increased to a level not seen in over a decade, going up by 6.8 percent. As previewed previously by the National Safety Council (NSC), the increase in fatality rate is the largest in almost a century of data collection. Understanding this trend is a challenge. On one hand, increases in speed and alcohol-impaired driving crashes have increased, while seat belt use has declined, which certainly accounts for some of the increase in fatal crashes. But less than half of the fatal crashes had one of these reasons as a listed factor. Further, data from the European Union suggest similar trends in speed- and alcohol-related collisions, but fatality rates declined by 17 percent during the same time frame .
When crashes decline but fatalities increase, it suggests that the severity of crashes has increased because drivers are not reacting to mitigate a crash event. For example, speed and alcohol can both reduce the effectiveness of braking because of reduced reaction time. This can result in a higher speed collision. I am convinced the culprit for U.S. fatalities is distracted driving, because in such crashes a driver reaction is often completely absent, resulting in a collision at full speed. This would be consistent with the U.S. versus EU data, as EU countries have much more effective distracted driving laws. And it would also explain the missing data in the fatality causation data, since research by the NSC shows that distracted driving fails to show up on the Fatality Accident Reporting System, even when it was an established cause.
Why, then, might distracted driving be on the rise among drivers? One simple reason is that we now have more ways to connect than ever and we are using those ways to do business while we drive. As business has been forced to turn to collaborative online platforms, employers and employees have become more comfortable with using their phones to do business. How many of us can recall people calling into a Zoom or Teams meeting while driving before the pandemic? I suspect everyone has experienced one now, and maybe do on a regular basis.
The impact on safety is clear. Even a hands-free collaboration via your company’s preferred platform is not without risk. If it takes your brain to collaborate, it takes your brain away from driving safely. Further, if a driver uses their brain to drive, they aren’t contributing to productive business. When NSC polled businesses that instituted a no distracted driving policy, they not only failed to find a decrease in productivity, but they also found that many reporting member companies indicated productivity went up! When we asked people in our lab to participate in a negotiation on the phone either while driving or while parked, we found that negotiation performance declined by 30 percent when the participants were “doing business” while driving.
Distracted driving isn’t just bad for people, it’s bad for business. One simple answer for leadership is a policy to not allow employees to attend meetings while they drive. Those employees aren’t contributing fully, while at the same time they are increasing their crash risk and the risk of drivers around them. Employees should be empowered to not respond to calls while driving and follow that with changing their outgoing voice message to reflect that approach. As the world of work becomes more distributed, these, and other, changes are the new “must do’s” for businesses worldwide.
¹Overview of Motor Vehicle Crashes in 2020 (dot.gov)
²Road deaths in the European Union – latest data | ETSC
About the Author
eDriving’s Brain Science Advisor, Paul Atchley, PhD, is the University of South Florida’s Senior Associate Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Studies. As a Professor of Psychology, he specializes in research in cognitive factors, including the implications of multitasking on driving.