Study claims distracted driving is endemic

Robert Gray is told telematics shows most drivers flout safety by using phones while driving.

Distracted driving is not only worse than many experts thought it was, it’s 100 times worse, according to a study of American drivers from Zendrive. That creates both a need and an opportunity to improve the situation through education, enforcement, technology and insurance.

The study analysed more than 100Bn miles and tens of millions of drivers in the study of its proprietary data. Findings claim to show the situation was in stark contrast to recent US government figures with 60% of drivers using phones at the wheel at least once a day. Yet a NHTSA reportfor 2015 estimated only 6.9% of drivers, some 660,000 of them, used a handheld phone during daylight hours.

Jonathan Matus is founder and CEO of Zendrive, which he launched after stints at Google and Facebook, says his company gets a more representative view of what’s actually happening on the highways and byways because its platform uses smartphone sensors to analyse driving behaviour.

“It’s extremely difficult to get this information (on distracted driving), most figures are based on surveys; you ask drivers or police how many tickets they are writing,” Matus says. “Our technology is based on AI and mobile sensing. We are helping fleets, insurance companies, and consumers understand safety through data. Our mission is to make roads safe using data and analytics.”

Device down, eyes up

Not only are more people using their devices more often, they’re using them for longer periods of time, according to the study. Every minute, 2.3M people are using their phone for an average amount of three minutes and 40 seconds, 20 seconds longer on average than the prior year.

Every state’s distracted driving record got worse from the prior year, with the lone exception of Vermont, yet the Green Mountain State was the worst that year so everyone else just got even worse according to Zendrive. The peak time for distracted driving is 4pm local, the start of afternoon commuting and school pickups. The worst location may not surprise commuters: it’s around intersections where different highways merge.

Educate and enforce

One interesting finding was the lack of correlation between legislation and less distracted driving. “We think legislation is necessary but not enough, you need enforcement and education,” says Matus. “States and municipalities don’t have endless resources, so where do you put cameras and where and when do you place police and highway patrol? Getting enforcement to be smart, you can only do that through data.”

Matus says getting this message out to drivers just to finish mapping and texting before getting on the highway and then smartly deploying police where arteries join highways will help reduce this behaviour even with just police cars flashing their lights.

Claire Bowin, senior city planner and head of the Urban Design Studio for the city of Los Angeles, says this data is instructive: “It’s helpful from a planning perspective to push for more infrastructure improvements, helping push for more road improvements to slow traffic down, so more things are impeding drivers’ ability to go fast since they may be on phones. I can’t control that (distracted driving) but it can slow them down.”

Bowin also argues that the focus on car and drivers is misplaced: “I’m nearly hit at intersections all the time… we are focusing on the wrong place. We are still very protective of vehicle drivers’ rights instead of pedestrians.’

Matus says there’s a huge opportunity and need for automakers, technology firms, and insurance companies. “We have anywhere from 50 drivers (in a fleet) to hundreds or thousands of drivers using technology to understand quickly whether driver A or B is risky and why, to coach and improve behaviour and then to suspend or replace the driver.”

Booster Fuels, which delivers fuel direct to its customers’ parked cars at corporate campuses and retail locations, uses the technology. Dave Sandifer, regional director, says using data is important in contextualising and addressing any safety issues that companies with fleets may need to address.As a manager, I can have a much more effective conversation with employees when I have detailed information,” says Sandifer. “There is an opportunity to improve real-time data access.”

Farmers Insurance is also looking to arm its customers with data through its Signal app. “It allows drivers to see when and where they get distracted and helps drivers see where they engaged in certain event triggers, such as harsh braking, excessive speeding, and distracted driving,” notes Mariel Devesa, head of innovation for Farmers. “With this information, we hope drivers will feel informed and empowered enough to make changes, as necessary, to make the roads safer for everyone.” Devesa added that many drivers who use the app are surprised just how much they use their devices while driving.

Apple and Android smart devices have “Do not disturb” functions but most people opt not to use those while driving. Matus argues that if a driver really wants information they’ll become more distracted trying to get it, so voice is better than typing. He and his co-founder know a thing or two about that as he helped develop Google’s voice command technology and launch search by voice for Google Maps.

It is this normalisation of texting, using map apps, and search that concerns Devesa and Matus and others. The driver distraction study found that most driver device use, and the potential for accidents, occurs at the start of a journey. So simply finishing a call, text, or searching for directions before putting the car in gear may prevent many of these accidents.

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