Are phone addicts the new drunk drivers? A new study says yes, they are. For many in today’s always-on society, connectivity is imperative—for work, for social networking, for keeping up on current events, and for entertainment. Unfortunately, while this very connectivity can lead to greater productivity and collaboration, it can also have negative consequences, ranging from social isolation and physical inactivity to offering too much distraction in the midst of other tasks, such as driving. As more people are expected to flood city centers as part of urbanization, could this problem get even worse before it gets better?

Distracted driving is forcing lawmakers and governments, technology providers and carmakers, insurance companies and fleet managers, law enforcement agencies, and other entities to come together to problem solve. How can we as a society address this massive, deadly epidemic? Perhaps the first step is to understand the problem through research and data.

Zendrive’s 2019 Distracted Driving Study, the company’s third annual research effort focusing on distracted driving, analyzed more than 160 billion miles of driver data to uncover some disturbing trends and statistics. The study suggests last year, 6,227 pedestrians died by the hands of distracted drivers, and, nationally, drivers are 10% more distracted than they were during the previous survey period. Zendrive recognizes a category of drivers called “Phone Addicts,” who physically touch their phones four times more than average drivers during any given trip. As a result, 28% of a phone addict’s time behind the wheel is spent with his eyes off the road.

Compared to drunk drivers, the study suggests the threat from phone addicts is even worse, in part because phone addicts are on the road every hour of every day (whereas most drunk drivers are on the road between midnight and 3 AM). Research has shown that the cognitive distraction caused by using a smartphone behind the wheel is comparable to driving under intoxication, but while drunk driving is shunned in most communities in the U.S., distracted driving is still dangerously prevalent within most age groups.

Thanks to tools like Zendrive, an app that helps fleet managers and insurance companies understand how users drive, there is a lot more data than ever before about people’s driving behaviors. With this data, stakeholders can start to create educational programs, incentives for safe behavior, and even laws to discourage dangerous habits. Since one of the biggest issues remains a lack of awareness on drivers’ parts about just how dangerous their habits are, education must be combined with enforcement and incentives to create as much taboo around distracted driving as there is around drunk driving.

Urbanization must also be taken into consideration. With more people on urban roads, distracted driving likely hasn’t yet peaked in terms of its max impact on society. However, with the coming of AVs (autonomous vehicles), it’s possible that the faults of human drivers won’t always be a factor in road safety. Since a fully autonomous future is many decades away, though, AVs aren’t and can’t be considered a solution. Data is a friend in the fight against distracted driving, and insurance companies, fleet managers, parents, and individuals should consider using devices and the data they can collect to protect drivers from themselves.

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