Distracted driving: what does this topic have to do with the IoT (Internet of Things)? I get asked this a lot. So for this blog, I want to explain why distracted-driving discussions belong on the Connected World Website.

To put it simply: connected devices and technologies have changed the way we drive. Connected devices and technologies have also changed the cars we drive. Most new vehicles today have built-in connectivity that strives to make it easier to stay connected while behind the wheel, but this can end up giving drivers a false sense of security. Distracted driving is an issue that was born from the connectivity we’ve all come to rely on in both our personal and professional lives.

More importantly, it’s an issue that enterprises need to take seriously if they have employees traveling to and from, especially if they’re driving company vehicles.

Last week on The Peggy Smedley Show and in this blog, I took a deep dive into some of the really creative ways cities and police departments are combating distracted driving on local and regional levels. If you missed both the radio show or if you haven’t read my blog, I encourage you to go back and read it or listen to the podcast. It’s very interesting to learn what others are doing to combat this global epidemic.

In this blog, my goal however, is to talk about the latest facts, and the sad number of fatalities that are resulting due to driver distraction. In my next column, I will explore potential solutions. We can’t take steps to resolve the problems if we don’t look at it from every aspect.

The NSC (National Safety Council), released the official—though provisional—motor vehicle death estimates for 2016, and just like we feared, it doesn’t look good. According to the data available, motor vehicle deaths climbed up 6% in 2016.

The NSC attributes lower gas prices and an improving economy to a 3% increase in motor vehicle mileage, which has contributed to the uptick in motor vehicle deaths. Sadly, the number of estimated motor vehicle deaths in 2016 totaled 40,200. This is actually the first time since 2007 that the annual fatality total has exceeded 40,000.

You may remember last year during distracted-driving awareness month, we reported a similar story. In February last year, the National Safety Council announced motor vehicle deaths had increased around 8% in 2015 compared to 2014. The NSC reported this to be the largest year-over-year percentage increase in 50 years.

The council has revised that number to be a 7% increase from 2014 to 2015, but no matter how you slice it, the past two years has brought a dramatic increase in motor vehicle deaths in the U.S.

Obviously—and for anyone reading this who are playing devil’s advocate and are already thinking this—not all of these deaths are a result of distracted driving. You are perhaps correct.

But the fact remains, by considering these numbers, though, we can begin to look at what other variables in our society are affecting driver safety and then spot correlations where they exist. One trend is that people are driving more, as the NSC pointed out in its latest research report.

Another trend is that there are more vehicles on the road that have built-in connectivity systems, and there are more smartphones in people’s hands than ever before.

So now, let’s examine the February 2017 driver safety public opinion poll that was also recently released by the National Safety Council.

There were 2,001 U.S. drivers over the age of 21 that completed surveys between January 22 and February 2 of this year that revealed they fear driving as a top concern to cause injury to their loved ones. Respondents said driving was a top concern of potential causes of injury or death that threaten themselves and their family members.

What’s more, 36% said driving was a “major concern”—and driving ranked higher than gun violence (34%), natural disasters (27%), infectious diseases (26%), and other concerns. When asked to rate their level of concern regarding various traffic safety issues, drunk drivers were the most concerning, with 78% of respondents listing this as a major concern. Ranking very closely behind drunk driving, though, was distracted driving.

Some 74% listed distracted driving as a major concern when thinking about safety on the road. Distracted driving ranked higher than aggressive drivers, speeding, road rage, and bad weather.

Interestingly, one survey question asked respondents to choose which option was safer: using voice commands to send a text message or typing a text message directly into a phone.

39% said voice commands were safer, 5% said typing was the safest option, 3% said the two options were equally safe, and 53% said neither option was safe while driving. As a proponent of focusing on the road ahead I was encouraged by the number of people who selected “neither option is safe.” However, I can’t help but worry a bit about the 39% who selected voice commands.

This tells a clear story that many folks don’t quite understand the risks involved in cognitive multitasking while driving.     We’ve discussed research before that demonstrates that hands-free does not equal risk-free. One of the latest studies to validate this comes from the Queensland University of technology. The findings from the December 2016 survey suggest that talking hands-free on a mobile device is just as distracting as having a handheld conversation.

In both cases, drivers’ reaction times were more than 40% longer than people who weren’t talking on the phone. It’s not everyone’s favorite subject, but there needs to be more discussion about how our messaging around distracted driving needs to change.

This may also include admitting that our past messaging about the dangers of distracted driving was either wrong (because it focused on keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel), or it was too light handed. We now know that it’s not holding a phone that’s the problem; it’s doing anything other than driving while driving. This is the message that need to resonate with drivers going forward. Sadly, that’s the deadly truth of it all.

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