November 21, 2017
Cheryl and Christopher Jensen, contributor
In 2016, 3,450 people were killed because of distracted driving. Automakers keep loading cars up with infotainment features and smartphones mean we can text and drive. Some people even admit to watching videos while they drive. Can you believe it? Consumer Reports takes on the issue.
Men are more likely than women to engage in distracted driving behavior such as texting, according to a Consumer Reports national survey.
A five-year-old girl who died one Christmas Eve after a 20-year old accused of video chatting on his smartphone plowed into the back of her family’s car on a Texas highway.
An 18-year-old freshman at Michigan State University who was killed when a 21-year-old drove her car into his at 81 mph.
Their stories are highlighted in the January issue of Consumer Reports as examples of the human toll that distracted driving takes. The article, “The Dangers of Driving While Distracted,” is a comprehensive look at the rise in distracted driving fatalities and what can be done by everyone—drivers, automakers, tech companies and policymakers—to prevent it, since there is more than enough blame to go around.
Stories about people are more compelling than numbers but there’s a place for those, too.
So, how distracted are we? According to a national survey Consumer Reports conducted of 622 licensed drivers, 52% admitted to engaging in distracting activities while driving, even though they know it’s wrong.
Of those drivers surveyed, 41% admitted using their hands to send a text, 37% to playing music on a smartphone and 8% to watching videos on their phone while driving.
I hardly knew what to think when I read about watching videos. But Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports, said he knew what to think: “If 8% admit to watching videos while they’re driving, how many people do it and don’t admit it. In reality, it could be higher and that is scary,” Fisher said.
In 2016, 3,450 people were killed because of distracted driving. The good news is that figure represents 2.2% fewer fatalities than in 2015. But, according to the article the number of distraction-related fatalities reported in 2016 was higher than in 2011.
We’ve seen distraction evolve from people texting, to everyone having a smartphone and having the world of the internet at your fingertips while we’re driving, Fisher said. Add to that the confusing and complex controls in cars that Consumer Reports’ testers are seeing more and more.
And it isn’t only distracted driving. It’s everything from speeding to drinking and driving that has culminated in recent increases in traffic deaths over the last several years, with 37,461 lives lost in 2016 alone, said David Friedman. Friedman is the director of cars and product policy at Consumers Union, which is the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports. He is a former deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“The problem is getting worse not better. And even if it were getting better, more than 37,000 deaths a year that’s a public health epidemic; and more needs to be done across the nation when it comes to roadway fatalities,” he said.
Consumer Reports and Consumers Union are going to step up their efforts to address the issue and urge everyone else to do the same
The organization is looking for more ways to help drivers understand the risk associated with problems like distracted driving, to help them understand how to protect themselves and to push automakers and policymakers to step up their efforts as well, Friedman said.
Fisher and Friedman say they are trying to use all the tools they have to try to tackle this issue.
We are in a unique position, Fisher said. We test and evaluate all the latest technology and have a huge amount of data from subscriber surveys about what people like and don’t like as they interact with these new technologies.
“We are hoping to use this information to educate consumers about what kind of systems they should be looking for and potentially help manufacturers build systems that consumers want and can benefit from,” Fisher said.
Friedman said they want to bring together that testing expertise, the policy work and the journalism side “to help increase our focus” on distracted driving and other traffic safety issues to push automakers and help consumers on a broad array of these issues.
“You always hear the statistic that 94% of crashes are due to human error,” he said. “That’s true.”
But there are two sides to that story. While drivers have to be educated about how to avoid making those errors, cars have to do a better job of protecting people, he said
Since human beings are going to make mistakes, cars and policy have to be designed to accept that reality, instead of blaming the driver.
“Each side has responsibility. Drivers have a responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and their brain engaged in the driving task. Automakers and policymakers have the responsibility to ensure that cars are safe when those inevitable human errors occur and ideally to design cars such that they compensate for those human errors.”
Tools they won’t be counting on include legislation and regulation, as the climate for both is “just as bad in many ways,” Friedman said. “Both the House and Senate are looking at weakening protections for consumers when it comes to automated vehicles by allowing hundreds of thousands or more vehicles on the road that could be exempt from safety standards.”
Friedman said they would like to see more funding for states to tackle problems like distracted driving and vehicle-to-vehicle communications in all cars, he said, but doesn’t hold out hope that will happen.
Still, he said they are going to keep pushing automakers and regulators to do more. And in the distracted driving article they have recommendations for automakers, tech companies and policymakers to tackle the issue.
“We are going to keep following up on those issues and looking for opportunities to get agreement on the path forward,” Friedman said.
He mentions the voluntary agreement among automakers to put automatic emergency braking (AEB) on all their vehicles by 2022. But those are systems that brake at low speeds, he said.
“You are many more times likely to die in a crash at high speeds. So, will automakers step up and put not just low-speed but put high-speed AEB standard on their vehicles? That’s a conversation I want to have with them.”
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