Drunk driving accounts for nearly a third of all traffic-related deaths in the United States, with approximately one death occurring every hour. We have a long history with drunk driving: In 1906, New Jersey became the first state to adopt a law that specifically criminalized intoxicated driving. Since then, federal and state laws have been enacted and activist groups formed to discourage drunk driving, which has resulted in a steady decline and increasing stigmatization of the behavior. Unfortunately, new data shows that drunk driving may not be the greatest threat on the road anymore.
The advent, adoption and obsession with smartphones has led to an equally serious epidemic – distracted driving – which has overtaken drunk driving as consumers’ top safety concern on the road. A recent in-house survey shows that sixty-three percent of drivers are more afraid of distracted drivers on the road than they are of drunk drivers. And that fear is not unfounded: 75 percent of drivers see other drivers using their phones while driving every single day, and 45 percent see phone distraction on the road multiple times a day.
Smartphones may not be the only cause of distraction on the road, but they certainly top the list. Data shows top distractions drivers experience include:
- Navigation (27 percent)
- Text messages (30 percent)
- Phone calls (32 percent)
- Other passengers (44 percent)
While the prevalence of drunk driving has been well documented for decades, we don’t yet know the full impact of distracted driving, because accident reporting in most states does not cover it. In particular, only 11 states have “mobile-phone distraction” as a factor on accident reports from police, and only 27 states allow notation of “distraction” in general on such reports.
Reporting aside, current laws also don’t motivating consumers to curb distracted driving the same way they do with drunk driving. A first offense driving under intoxication (DUI) could land you 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, along with a 6-month license revocation. Penalties for distracted driving vary by state, but most only levy fines under $400 and five states don’t have any laws against texting and driving.
While the number of drunk driving fatalities has fallen by a third in the last three decades, the number of distracted driving fatalities continues to increase with the popularity of smartphones. As we become more addicted to our mobile devices, government agencies, insurance companies and technology innovators need to work together to discourage this dangerous behavior on the road.
Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have had significant positive impact on legislation and awareness around drunk driving, but the same can’t yet be said for groups organizing around distracted driving. Major campaigns like “It Can Wait” and Distracted Driving Awareness month are having a growing impact, but the movement is just beginning.
In our survey, drivers were asked what would provide the greatest incentive to reduce phone distraction while driving. Only 39 percent of them said laws against cellphone use had an impact on their phone usage while driving. Being rewarded with gift cards or promotions provided more motivation (59 percent), but discounts from insurance providers took the cake with 79 percent of drivers saying they would be encouraged to reduce phone distraction on the road.
While many auto insurers are leveraging smartphone-based telematics programs to provide driver feedback, reduce distraction and improve road safety, nationwide adoption is still in the early stages. With the rise in distracted driving, smartphone telematics provides a particularly effective way for insurers to do something about it. There are some results that show that drivers using smartphone telematics programs decrease their distraction by 30 percent on average after a month of using the program. However, according to results from CMT, 60 percent of consumers want telematics-based programs to receive feedback and improve their driving performance, but only 22 percent have ever been offered such a program from their insurer.
Smartphones are able to decrease distracted driving by using mobile sensors to gauge driving performance, provide real-time feedback and encourage improvement via gamification and competitions. In addition to phone distraction, smartphone telematics programs measure other metrics including at-risk speed, acceleration patterns, vehicle mileage and road types. This feedback allows drivers to identify and curb dangerous driving habits, making them a better customer in the long-run.
In addition to being co-founder and chief scientist at CMT, Sam Madden is co-leader of the CarTel project, professor of computer science at MIT and director of BigData@CSAIL. He is known for contributions to the field of database systems, with expertise including managing sensor data, column-oriented databases and databases-as-a-service.
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