Survey Reveals Wash. Drivers’ Safe, Poor Driving Habits

June 21, 2004

Drivers in Thurston County, Wash., may not travel on the most dangerous or complex roadways, but they are certainly some of the most responsible drivers in the state, according to a poll of Washington drivers commissioned by PEMCO Insurance.

The poll asked 600 Washingtonians about their distracted driving awareness and habits, cell phone usage while driving, car maintenance practices, and how strictly they obey the speed limit. PEMCO then ranked the results by county according to the likelihood that drivers will make responsible choices that would improve their safety.

Thurston County drivers ranked highest in the poll, with Yakima County drivers second and Spokane County drivers third. The counties receiving the highest ranking demonstrated the most responsible behavior.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, speeding is a contributing factor in 30 percent of all fatal crashes, and driver distraction contributes to 20 to 30 percent of all crashes. PEMCO notes that spotty car maintenance (such as forgotten fluids, treadless tires or malfunctioning brakes) frequently contributes to accidents.

“The poll focused on choices,” said Jon Osterberg, PEMCO insurance
spokesperson. “All of the decisions that go into safe driving — choosing to eliminate distractions, follow the speed limit, keep a car properly maintained — reflect a driver’s level of responsibility.”

Although Thurston County ranked the highest, none of the counties did well in every category. “No driver is perfect,” said Osterberg. “All drivers have something they can improve to drive more safely.”

Car Maintenance and Preparedness
The car maintenance category ranked the percentage of drivers most likely to regularly check things like brake fluid, lights, tire tread, and emergency flares.

“Most people wouldn’t set foot on a plane if they knew it hadn’t been
maintained properly, yet many people don’t maintain their own cars regularly,” said Osterberg. “Responsible drivers recognize the correlation between a safe car and safe driving.”

Drivers who take the time to maintain their cars and equip them for
emergencies make choices that improve their safety and the safety of others.

PEMCO recommends drivers regularly check these items:
Fluids — Check monthly to make sure fluids — including engine oil,
brake, transmission, power steering, coolant and wiper fluids — are
at the proper levels and changed regularly.

Tires — If you can stick a penny in a tire’s tread and still see
the top of President Lincoln’s head, the tires are probably illegal
and a safety hazard.

Wipers — Check at least once a year. Seasonal temperature changes
can crack and warp wiper blades, reducing visibility.

Belts and Hoses — Check all of them for cracks, bulges, splits, or
signs of wear.

Battery — The average car battery lasts 3-5 years; check the
battery and charging system regularly, and make sure cables stay
tight and free from corrosion.

Brakes — Inspect brakes at least twice a year and replace pads as

Lights — Ask a friend to help make sure headlights, turn signals,
brake lights and emergency flashers work properly.

Glass — Cracked windows can impede vision. More important, intact
windshields provide greater protection in rollover crashes.

Distracted Driving Awareness
Drivers were asked to rank the danger of distracted-driving behaviors,
including reading, text messaging, talking on a cell phone, applying makeup or shaving, driving with no hands on the wheel, and eating.

Benton County drivers were the most aware of the danger of distracted
driving, with Yakima County and Thurston County drivers ranking second and third respectively.

Overall, the poll showed drivers knew that distractions are dangerous. No distracted driving activity received a ‘safe’ rating, and six common
distracted driving activities scored an average of 4.5 out of five on the
danger scale.

Focused Driving
The poll asked drivers if they have ever engaged in specific distracting
activities while driving, determining the likelihood that drivers would engage in the activity again.

Yakima County drivers were least likely to drive distracted, with Spokane County drivers ranking second and Thurston County ranking third.

Surprisingly, the county with the greatest awareness of the dangers of driving distracted, Benton County, ranked ninth in refraining from driving distracted.

“There’s a difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing,'” said Osterberg.
“Most drivers complain about other inattentive drivers, but responsible
drivers go a step further and actually change their behavior. They take their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel less often.”

Eating a meal turned out to be the most common distracting
activity — 65 percent of drivers stated they’ve eaten a meal while driving. Fifty-eight percent of drivers acknowledged they talk on a cell phone while driving, 25 percent admitted steering with their legs, 14 percent admitted shaving or applying makeup, 6 percent reading a newspaper or book, and 3 percent writing a text message.

Safe and Courteous Cell Phone Use
While PEMCO recommends drivers never use a cell phone while driving, sometimes it’s unavoidable. In those cases, there are techniques responsible drivers should use to minimize distraction, such as using a hands-free device or pulling over to make or take calls.

The poll showed urban drivers are most likely to take measures to reduce cell phone distraction. King County received its highest ranking in this category by ranking fourth, with Whatcom, Thurston and Spokane counties ranking first though third respectively.

“In our busy society, people believe that the more they can multi-task,
the better,” said Osterberg. “But it’s not true for drivers who talk and
drive — they take a big risk of being too distracted to see quick changes in traffic.”

Following Speed Limit Rank
PEMCO ranked the counties according to the percentage of drivers driving at or below the speed limit. Counties with more speeders received lower rankings.

Drivers in Yakima County were most likely to drive at or below the speed limit, while drivers in Pierce County were the least likely to drive at or below the speed limit.

Speeders require more distance to stop. Studies show that the faster a vehicle travels, the less likely the driver will notice a hazard in time to avoid it. Also, excess speed decreases the chances that seatbelts, airbags and other safety features will prevent injury.

“Following speed limits is the most obvious indicator of driver
responsibility,” said Osterberg. “Simply put, responsible drivers don’t speed, because they realize that saving a minute or two isn’t worth the risk.”

For a complete copy of the county-by-county results, contact Jeremy Mackie at (206) 443-9357.

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