Safety regulators still have no idea just how deadly the combination of mobile phones and cars can be, but mounting evidence paints a grim picture.
The latest disconcerting data come from a massive study by Zendrive, a San Francisco-based startup that tracks phone use for automobile insurers and ride-hailing fleets. Of the 2.3 million drivers it monitored over 5.6 billion miles, some 12 percent were characterized as mobile-phone addicts—calling, texting or scrolling through apps three times more than the average driver.
“Without decisive action and a lot of education, it will be difficult to see the trend reverse,” said Zendrive co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Matus. “We’re just starting and I feel like it’s still an uphill battle.”
What’s more, laws banning handheld phone use seemed to have little effect. In the 15 states that have such measures in place, the share of phone addicts only dropped by two points, from 12 percent of drivers to 10 percent. “That’s an area of great concern to me,” Matus said. “It means either the rules are not known, the enforcement is not effective or people are so addicted to their phones they’re willing to take the risk.”
If recent fatalities are any measure, all three of those conditions seem to be likely. After decades of gradual declines, U.S. road deaths surged by 14.4 percent between 2014 and 2016. The largest fatality spikes were among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, all of whom are relatively easy to miss from behind the wheel for a driver glancing at a text message.
It’s anyone’s guess how many of those deaths are tied to drivers making a quick call or finishing an email. Most police accident reports still don’t include a box to record mobile-phone distraction as a cause for a crash or collision. Meanwhile, prosecutors find it easier to pursue charges on speeding and drinking, given that mobile-phone records take longer to obtain and often aren’t determinative.
A recent study by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit that partners with national regulators, found that only about half of fatal crashes tied to mobile phone use were coded as such in federal databases.
The highest percentages of high-risk drivers were found in a broad swath of the south.
Zendrive may be providing the clearest view of the problem. It’s technology piggy-backs on apps such as GasBuddy and taps into a phone’s sensors and GPS to see when it’s in use and at what speed it’s traveling. It sells this analysis to insurers looking to refine risk profiles, as well as safety conscious apps like HopSkipDrive, a ride-hailing service parents can use to cart their kids to and from soccer practice. “It’s kind of like an X-ray vision superpower,” Matus said of his application.
Still, even Zendrive is likely discounting the danger somewhat. Its platform only records phone use when the device is actually moving around inside a car, like from your jacket pocket to your hand. An Uber driver who paws away at an iPhone mounted on a dashboard isn’t captured.
The only good news to be had from the Zendrive data is that its figures aren’t higher. It appears that the habits of a reckless few may be skewing statistics for everyone else on the road. All told, less than one third of drivers monitored were flagged for risky behavior. A respectable 71 percent didn’t exhibit any worrisome tendencies.
“Unfortunately, 30 percent of 200 million (drivers) is a pretty large number,” Matus said.
Beyond phone abusers, the company found that 9 percent of drivers accelerated and braked aggressively, a demographic that Zendrive dubbed “frustrated lead-footers.” Meanwhile, a separate 8 percent were characterized as speed demons, who zoom past limits almost six times more than the average driver.
States in New England and the Pacific Northwest had the greatest share of low-risk drivers, while the biggest percentages of high-risk drivers were found in a broad swath of the south running from New Mexico to Georgia and Florida.
For those looking to avoid distracted drivers, the best bet is deep in the Rocky Mountains. Montana, Wyoming and Idaho posted the lowest numbers on cell-phone use. Of course, service in those places can be spotty.