Traffic Safety Report Finds More Drivers Using Cellphones

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Despite laws against using a hand-held phone or similar device, a new report shows that people are not putting down their phones.

In fact, the report from Zendrive finds that drivers are using hand-held devices a hundred times more than previously thought. Previous reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that 600,000 drivers use their phones while they are driving, but Zendrive’s data shows the number to be closer to 69 million.

According to the new report, sixty percent of drivers nationally use their phones at least once during the day, and at any given hour, on average, forty percent of drivers may be using their phones. In California, drivers spent 6.5 percent of their time behind the wheel on their phones in 2018, which is a 54 percent increase over 2017.

“Whether or not a state has a law prohibiting drivers from using hand-held phones appears to have little effect on the amount of driver phone use or the change in driver phone use from 2017 to 2018,” says the report.

These findings contrast sharply with results that were released last October from the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS). That report found what it called a “considerable decrease” in cell-phone use over the previous year. The report even stated baldly that “distracted driving due to hand-held and estimated hands-free electronic devices fell in 2017.”

The difference may be in how the data was collected. The OTS report was based on field observations by researchers at Cal State Fresno—that is, people stood on the side of the road counting the number of drivers who are holding or looking at phones. Zendrive, on the other hand, has access through its software to direct data on cellphone use. The company’s focus is on driver safety, and as such it has developed automatic collisions detector systems that can identify crashes and notify emergency services. It specializes in measuring and analyzing driver behavior, and its data is used by insurance companies and fleet managers, among others.

Its report aggregates data from 4.5 million drivers.

“We’re super aware of the responsibility we have as a tech company,” said Noah Budnick, Policy Director at Zendrive. “We have to be serious about privacy and anonymity. ”

The data does not track, for example, who is using the phone or what they are using it for—whether they are talking or texting, for example. The technology can distinguish whether a person is driving or not, and all data about passenger use of phones was discarded from the dataset.

The difference in the findings may reflect the nascent state of measuring and tracking cell phone use. But, more distressingly, it doesn’t even address the use of so-called “hands-free” phones, which research shows is not safer than using hand-held devices. The OTS report estimates the use of hands-free devices, and the Zendrive report focuses solely on illegal uses–that is, holding the devices while using them.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that it’s the act of interacting with a phone that is distracting,” said Budnick. “We’re just beginning to understand how technology distracts the brain, particularly when it’s behind the wheel.”

As a way to think about the task ahead, he pointed to early days of drunk driving legislation, a “previously monumental traffic safety challenge that took a long time to understand and pass legislation about.” The NHTSA, he said, did not start collecting and reporting alcohol-related traffic safety statistics until 1982, which was the same year Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded and began pushing for stricter drunk driving laws. “People were doing it—and treating drunk driving as if it were normal—for twenty years before they even started measuring it,” he said.

“We’re just at the beginning of figuring out how to study distracted driving,” he said, “and the technology is new.”

Nevertheless, research about the dangers of phone use, whether hands-free or hand-held, is unequivocal. Driving while using a phone is dangerous, no matter what the law may say.

It may not be shocking to learn how many people ignore this fact. But it should be.

If you’re driving, just stay off the phone.

  • Brian Kennelly

    Distracted driving has always existed. Fumbling with radios, heat controls and searching for 8 tracks. Large GPS screens, voice command, and ergonomically placed control knobs help alleviate the amount of time eyes need to leave the road. These all help, but nothing will eliminate stupidity or lack of consideration, hence the need for “driverless” cars!

  • Anne A

    No surprise there. Some of the worst offenders are parents in my neighborhood, driving with their kids in the back seat.

  • Sterling Archer

    The overwhelming percentage of cars on the roads are single-occupancy vehicles so the concern of a passenger using their phone should be a small one.

    In this report they used their technology to distinguish between passengers and drivers. If two phones were detected as being used in a moving vehicle they can tell by the usage which one is likely which and count that one as the driver.

  • Carter O’Brien

    It’s in the report itself, near the bottom of this section:

    “Methodology

    Drawing from Zendrive’s ten billion miles of behavior data — aggregated and anonymized from over 5 million drivers — Zendrive looked at the frequency and duration of phone use behind the wheel.

    There are many small scale distracted driving reports but their conclusions vary and their statistical robustness is questionable. This topic is too important to leave in ambiguous settings, and so, in this study, Zendrive analyzed 5.6 billion miles driven by 3.1 million
    drivers nationwide from December 2016 to February 2017 to put together the definitive distracted driving behavior report.

    For comparison, the Federal Highway Administration’s periodic National Household Transportation Survey — considered an authoritative source on mobility data — surveyed about 300,000 people in 2009.

    The millions of people who use Zendrive are a mix of commercial customers and individual consumers. They all operate standard passenger vehicles — e.g. sedans, station wagons, minivans, SUVs, etc., not tractor trailers or other large industrial vehicles.

    Zendrive technology detects vehicle trips and safety related driving events using smartphone sensors. The safety events that Zendrive focuses on include speeding, aggressive acceleration, hard braking, collisions and phone use.

    Phone use while driving is detected when the driver handles the phone for a certain period of time for various purposes such as talking, texting or navigating. For privacy purposes, reported numbers do not differentiate between different purposes or apps; the data consider all sorts of engagement with smartphones as a driving distraction. The dataset used for this study is mostly derived from personal drivers driving passenger cars, though some commercial drivers such as transportation network company drivers, are included. The dataset does not include any type of heavy vehicle. Transportation network characteristics and traffic conditions were not included in the analysis. Zendrive technology is able to differentiate between drivers and passengers based where someone
    is setting and from what side of the vehicle they disembark.

    The phone use ratio behind the wheel is calculated as the ratio of total phone use in a trip over total trip duration. Median (50-percent quantile) phone use ratios are reported for all the trips that take place in a city.”

  • what_eva

    How are they detecting driver vs passenger?

    I’m all for technical solutions to stop drivers from using the phone, but this is a tough one. How does a phone know I’m not a passenger? If you want to argue about passengers distracting drivers, how does it know I’m not a passenger on a bus?

  • I read this article on my phone while I was driving. It grabbed my attention so completely that I didn’t even hear the screams.

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