Highway safety takes bad turn

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 21, 2013

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but as we enter the holiday travel season, two recent news reports point toward a troubling convergence involving highway traffic safety.
For the first time since 2005, traffic deaths rose last year, federal officials reported. A total of 33,561 fatalities occurred, a 3.3 percent increase from 2011. In itself, a one-year jump may turn out to be a statistical aberration, with fatalities soon resuming the gradual decline we’ve seen in recent years. Then again, the reversal could have more significance in light of the second report, a State Farm Insurance survey that indicates more of us are using smartphones while driving, meaning more distractions behind the wheel.
Safety experts aren’t saying that’s a factor in last year’s fatality surge. They attribute the increase largely to higher numbers of accidents involving motorcycles and bicycles, as the popularity of cycle ridership grows. But it’s not too great a leap to recognize that distractions like smartphones can impede drivers’ awareness of other vehicles — especially the less visible, two-wheeled variety — and lead to more accidents. That, after all, is why North Carolina and other states already ban texting while driving.
You wouldn’t think drivers would need a law telling them they can’t watch their phones and watch the road at the same time. Yet the percentage of drivers who confessed to using their phone to access the Internet while driving jumped from 13 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in the most recent survey.
As you might suspect, younger drivers are especially susceptible. Almost half of the drivers in the 18- to 29-year-old age group said they had used smartphones to access the Internet while driving, and 69 percent reported texting while driving (vs. 35 percent of drivers overall).
However, given the overall rise in the percentage of drivers using smartphones, this problem isn’t limited to young drivers. It’s a mature driver issue as well. Smartphone ownership is rapidly increasing among older drivers, with 82 percent of those aged 40-49 owning the devices and 64 percent of those aged 50-64 now having a smartphone.
Unfortunately, as smartphones rapidly saturate the population, there’s a corresponding increase in the tendency to use them while driving. That may not be directly impacting the fatality rate, but there’s no doubt it raises the risks of having an accident. Smartphones are a marvel of modern technology. But there’s no app for common sense behind the wheel.