Well-educated, well-off American drivers say they've suffered the consequences of distracted driving more than other motorists, from getting a ticket to getting involved in a major accident, according to a poll commissioned by insuranceQuotes.com.
The poll, conducted for insuranceQuotes.com by GfK Roper, a division of GfK Custom Research North America, shows how universal distracted driving has become: 93 percent of drivers report they engage in it somehow, whether by texting, talking on a cell phone -- even kissing.
All that distraction has consequences: Four in 10 American adults who are licensed motorists acknowledge that being distracted while driving caused them to do one of the following: swerve into another lane, slam on the brakes, get a ticket, almost get into an accident, or have a minor or major wreck.
That number rose to 49 percent for drivers who have a college degree and 43 percent for drivers who earn at least $75,000 a year. Those are the highest numbers among drivers from all income and education levels covered in the poll.
Del Lisk, vice president of safety services at DriveCam Inc., which specializes in driver risk management, says well-to-do, well-educated drivers likely exhibit the same traits as a classic impatient "Type A" personality who's engaged in many activities.
"Because this person has lots of things going on in his or her life, I suspect they also have a lot more temptation to conduct distracting activities," Lisk says. "They probably have a higher volume of phone and e-mail correspondence than other folks -- and they don't want to wait until after the drive to address it."
As for the consequences of distracted driving, well-off, well-educated drivers generally report more instances of everything from veering out of a lane to getting in a serious accident than other categories of drivers:
- 41 percent of well-educated drivers and 35 percent of high-income drivers say they've swerved out of their lane as a result of distracted driving, versus 32 percent of all drivers polled.
- 37 percent of drivers with a college degree and 33 percent in the highest income bracket report slamming on their brakes because of driving distractions, compared with 29 percent of all motorists polled.
- 26 percent of well-educated drivers and 22 percent of well-off drivers indicate that distracted driving caused them to nearly get into an accident, compared with 18 percent of all drivers polled.
- 22 percent of well-educated drivers and 18 percent of high-income drivers admit they've been ticketed as a result of distracted driving. That compares with 12 percent of all drivers polled.
- 20 percent of well-educated drivers and 16 percent of well-off drivers say they've been involved in a minor accident because of distracted driving, compared with 11 percent of all motorists polled.
- 17 percent of well-educated motorists and 13 percent of high-income drivers have been in a serious accident attributed to distracted driving, versus 8 percent of all drivers polled.
Lisk says well-to-do, well-educated drivers probably don’t associate the risks of distracted driving with their own behavior.
"They may or may not see activities such as use of a cell phone or texting as dangerous, but probably feel that it's a bigger issue for other drivers," Lisk says. "Remember, these are confident, successful people. Unlike others, they feel they can do it and be relatively safe. It's the classic, 'It can’t happen to me' syndrome.
Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii who has studied driver behavior, calls well-off, well-educated drivers "pioneers" whose actions behind the wheel are mirrored by other drivers, "as everyone is propelled by the habit of self-centered competition."
"Educated and well-paid individuals tend to be busy all day, and this attitude continues in the car," James says. "Multitasking and fatigue are chief causes of distracted driving."
Music, food cause most driving distractions
Well-to-do, well-educated drivers score the highest in almost every "distracted" category of the insuranceQuotes.com poll:
- 92 percent of highly educated drivers and 95 percent of high-income drivers say they've adjusted a radio, CD player or iPod while driving. That compares with 87 percent of all of the adult drivers who were polled.
- 83 percent of highly educated and high-income drivers acknowledge they've eaten while behind the wheel, compared with 77 percent of all respondents.
- 80 percent of highly educated drivers and 85 percent of high-income drivers confess they've talked on a cell phone while steering a vehicle. The figure was 74 percent for all drivers.
- 39 percent of highly educated drivers and high-income drivers fess up to kissing or engaging in other romantic physical contact while in the driver’s seat. That compares with the 29 percent of all drivers who acknowledge they've been amorous behind the wheel.
- 33 percent of highly educated and high-income drivers say they've read while driving, versus 20 percent of all drivers polled.
In two polling categories -- sending or receiving a text message, and lighting up a cigarette cigar or pipe -- well-educated and well-paid drivers are bested by other subgroups.
Seventy percent of drivers age 18 to 24 copped to texting while driving. For drivers earning at least $75,000 a year, the figure was 52 percent; for drivers with a college degree, it was 50 percent. The number was 39 percent for all drivers polled.
As for lighting up, drivers earning less than $20,000 edged out the highest income bracket, 57 percent to 41 percent. Overall, 43 percent of the drivers polled said they'd lit up while driving.
In terms of age, drivers 18 to 24 pulled ahead in the text messaging category (70 percent), drivers 25 to 34 led the pack for talking on a cell phone (84 percent), kissing or other amorous activity (42 percent), reading (34 percent) and applying makeup (22 percent), and drivers 35 to 49 swept the categories for adjusting a radio, CD player or iPod (90 percent), eating (82 percent) and lighting up (48 percent).
Nationwide cell phone ban?
The most successful way to tackle distracted driving involves combining several strategies, according to Vicki Harper, a spokeswoman for State Farm, the largest U.S. auto insurer. "Legislation, regulation, enforcement and technology all need to work together," Harper says.
Other experts say that creating a social stigma around distracted driving -- similar to what Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped do with drinking and driving -- is necessary as well. "We really have to make it wrong in people's minds," says Jennifer Smith, founder of the distracted driving awareness group FocusDriven.
Not all driving safety experts agree that bans are the answer, but there are 34 states that ban texting while driving and nine states that ban cell phone use altogether while driving,according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Recently, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that, depending on the outcome of research being done by his agency, he might push for an all-encompassing nationwide ban on cell phone use.
"Cell bans and texting bans are sweeping the country," says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "But people use cell phones and text and drive -- it's become the norm. It's going to take years to change that."
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, notes that bans, especially on texting, are difficult to enforce and might even cause more distraction if drivers try to hide their texting. "The research so far indicates that policymakers should not expect a big benefit from these laws," Rader says.
Technology -- which has contributed to the distracted driving problem -- may end up being a big part of the solution, experts say. New apps for smart phones work with vehicle GPS systems to hold calls and text messages that arrive while the car is in motion. State Farm offers a free widget for the Android, "On the Move," that automatically replies to texts with a message such as, "I'm driving right now. I'll text you later." Rader says collision warning and avoidance systems being developed by automakers also hold promise.
Consequences of distracted driving
No matter the cause, distracted driving can be deadly and costly, experts say.
Sixteen percent of fatal crashes in 2009 were attributed to distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"There's a whole laundry list of things people do while behind the wheel -- using a cell phone, texting, eating, reading, talking to passengers, even daydreaming," says Russ Martin, a legislative analyst for AAA. "Any of these could be a distraction that leads to a crash."
Experts say any at-fault crash, including a wreck attributed to distracted driving, can trigger a hike in a driver's auto insurance premiums.
According to the California-based nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog, which keeps tabs on the insurance industry, a premium might increase between 35 percent and 80 percent in California for an at-fault accident. Allstate offers a ballpark estimate tool showing that a married 41-year-old woman in the state of New York who drives a new Lexus SUV might see her $92 monthly premium increase to $125 because of a crash -- a jump of 35 percent. Or a single 26-year-old man in Missouri who drives a 5-year-old Acura could see his $95-a-month premium go up to $133 as a result of one accident -- a 40 percent increase. Some companies, including Allstate, offer accident forgiveness, but a safe driving record generally keeps insurance premiums lower, experts say.
"When people get into an accident, the first thing they want to know is whether their premiums will go up -- and they will," says Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog. "Distracted driving that causes more accidents and more claims payments will lead to an increase in premiums for everyone."
This poll was conducted online Oct. 1-3, 2010, via OMNIWEB, a weekly national online omnibus service of GfK Roper Custom Research North America, for insuranceQuotes.com. GfK Roper completed 1,006 interviews with 485 male and 521 female adults age 18 and older from a representative sample of the online population from GfK's online consumer panel. Of this group, GfK roper identified 858 who had a valid driver's license.
The raw data were weighted by a custom-designed computer program that automatically develops a weighting factor for each respondent using five variables: age, sex, education, race and geographic region. Each interview was assigned a weight based on the relationship between the actual proportion of the population with its specific combination of the five variables used, and the proportion in the sample that week. The margin of error for the weighted data is plus or minus 3 percentage points.