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7 things you need to know about distracted driving

Most of us have had the urge on more than one occasion. It's the "need" to respond to a text or answer a call or check email while driving. Well, according to a study published in December 2011 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it turns out that most of us are giving into this urge -- and, oh, what a dangerous urge it is.

In this slideshow, we highlight six findings of the traffic safety agency's study and tell you one more thing: how distracted driving can affect your auto insurance.

how distracted driving affects insurance rates Answering and making calls

Simply put, most surveyed drivers said they answer incoming calls while driving. When it comes to making calls, only 5 percent said they'd be willing to place calls on all road trips, 10 percent on most trips and 26 percent on some trips.

Two-thirds of the motorists surveyed said they answer and drive, and close to half of those who do said they hold a phone in their hand while driving. Seventeen percent use a hands-free earpiece, 9 percent have a built-in system for answering calls and 17 percent use the cellphone’s speakers.

“This gets to the core of humanity and our need to constantly connect,” says Chuck Cox, senior vice president for Cellcontrol, which makes Bluetooth-enabled technology designed to curb cellphone use behind the wheel. “We expect those connections in the vehicle now as well, and we don’t tolerate it well when those connections are severed.”

Stopping at nothing

According to the survey, there aren’t many situations that prompt drivers to stop using their phones behind the wheel. The primary situation cited (54 percent) was bad weather. About one-fourth said bumper-to-bumper or fast-moving traffic would influence a decision to not place calls or send messages. However, seeing a police officer, driving at night, going through a school zone or having a baby or child in the car probably wouldn't stop them from using their phones.

“What’s becoming more common is people trying to sort of limit the risk, like only texting at red lights, for example,” says Bob Davis, CEO of Virtual Driver Interactive, which designs systems that simulate driving conditions. “So you can see certain levels of behavior modification, but sadly we’re not stopping altogether.”

Dangers of the written word

Here’s the deal: Young people are texting behind the wheel. A lot.

According to the survey, close to half of motorists under age 25 said they text or email while behind the wheel. Additionally, 70 percent of that group said they send messages while steering. While 56 percent of men and 51 percent of women said bad weather might deter texting behind the wheel, only 5 percent of men and 12 percent of women said they wouldn’t send a text or email under any circumstance while driving.

“The stats are daunting, and they’re probably going to get worse,” says Tasso Roumeliotis, CEO of Safely, whose technology helps prevent cellphone use while driving. “The urge to reply or write a text has almost become an addiction. Teens especially are having a more difficult time resisting the need to reply to these social interactions.”

Does your driving change?

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, an estimated 3,092 traffic deaths occurred in distraction-related crashes in 2010. Still, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study reports that 54 percent of those surveyed said talking on a handheld device doesn't hurt their driving performance and 25 percent said texting doesn’t have an effect.

Age is a key factor here. Sixty-one percent of those under 24 said talking on a cellphone while driving makes no difference in how they drive.

“There’s a human instinct factor here,” says Roumeliotis, the CEO of Safely. “People know it’s more dangerous because almost everyone has been in that situation where they hit the ‘send’ button and see the car stop abruptly in front of them. They say, ‘Wow, I can’t do that again.’ So you don’t do it for 15 minutes. Then you do it again.”

Perception of safety

Ironically, almost all passengers surveyed -- 85 percent of men and 90 percent of women -- consider it unsafe when a driver sends or receives a text message or email behind the wheel.

The survey “underlines what we already know: We think using cellphones while driving is unsafe -- except for us,” says Anne Marie Hayes, president of the Teens Learn to Drive Foundation. “We think we are better, safer, faster and smarter than everyone else.”

Perception of the law

Nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting the use of cellphones while driving. Moreover, nine out of 10 respondents from all age groups in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey support laws that ban texting while driving, and six of 10 support laws that ban cellphone use while driving. Support is higher (75 percent) among older drivers.

However, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, these measures have done little to curb the number of motorists using their cellphones behind the wheel.

“We’ve done studies looking at the laws restricting phone use while driving, and we’ve found that the laws have not reduced crashes,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for nonprofit institute. “Crashes haven’t necessarily increased, but they also haven’t gone down either as laws have been enacted. That’s very curious to us.”

Paying a premium

“If you’re involved in an at-fault accident because you were using a cellphone, it’s just like running a stop light or stop sign and hitting someone,” says Dan Weedin, an insurance and risk management consultant in Seattle. “In the insurance company’s eyes, that’s a high degree of negligence and your policy is probably not going to be renewed.”

In terms of shopping for a new policy after such an accident, Weedin calls the process “brutal.” The wreck will stay on your driving record for three years. During that period, auto insurers either will refuse to provide coverage or will slap you with a sky-high premium because you're tagged as a high-risk driver.

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