Two recent reports indicate that distracted driving remains a growing problem in the U.S. – yet one that two Northwestern states, at least, are finding can be addressed with stricter distracted driving laws.
A new study published July 9 in "Risk Analysis: An International Journal" by the Society for Risk Analysis found that many drivers "don't perceive texting and driving to be dangerous" in certain driving scenarios.
In the U.S., mobile phone usage has been a factor in one quarter of all car collisions. However, actual crash risks vary based on the type of task and the extent of its cognitive and physical demands on the driver, the report said. For example, talking on a mobile device increased crash risk by 2.2 times, whereas texting increased it by 6.1 times, the group found.
Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios from the Australia Queensland University of Technology and one of four researchers involved with this study, noted that "more targeted distracted driving campaigns" should emphasize "safety attitudes" to more effectively curb drivers' motivations for engaging with their phones while driving.
He said in the report that this research also confirmed the need to profile and target high-risk groups, particularly novice drivers and those "overly attached to their phones," to develop messaging that considers their particular "motivating factors."
Yet a separate survey conducted by PEMCO Insurance this year found that enforcement of stricter "distracted driving" laws that began in Washington and Oregon last year is having an effect. That poll found increased penalties and an added emphasis on enforcement convinced nearly two-thirds of motorists polled in those two states to become "more cautious" about engaging in distractions when they're behind the wheel.
The insurance firm asked Northwest drivers how they reacted to new distracted driving rules, known as "E-DUI" laws, which were updated in 2017 and 2018 to add harsher penalties for drivers caught on their phones or preoccupied with other distractions. The PEMCO poll found that the stricter laws seem to be achieving the desired effect: 63 percent of drivers said they are at least "a little more cautious" now versus earlier, with nearly one in four drivers (23 percent) "much more cautious" about driving while distracted.
"Most of us acknowledge how dangerous it can be to use your phone while driving, but it's not always easy to break the habit – or even admit that we do it," said PEMCO Spokesperson Derek Wing in a statement. "But it appears the new laws may actually be impacting behaviors for the better, as most drivers in our survey say they've become more cautious since the new E-DUI laws passed last year."
In Washington, as of July 2017, virtually all use of a handheld device is a primary offense, meaning a police officer can cite a driver just for using a phone or tablet. Getting busted for using a device comes with a fine of at least $136 for first-timers, while drivers with two citations within five years can be charged $234 or more.
According to the Washington State Patrol, following a grace period when troopers gave more lenient warnings to drivers violating the laws, the agency "buckled down" and handed out 8,376 citations for distracted driving.
In Oregon, a driver caught holding or using an electronic device can face a fine from $130 to $1,000 for a first-time offense, and anywhere from $220 to $2,000 for a second infraction. On top of that, starting July 1 this year, drivers cited for three offenses in a 10-year period will be fined up to $2,500 and can face up to six months in jail.
Since Oregon's updated law went into effect last October, the Oregon State Police said it has issued a combined total of 3,443 warnings and citations for distracted driving.
Photo: U.S. Air Force
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