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Status Report, Vol. 49, No. 8 | SPECIAL ISSUE: DISTRACTED DRIVING | October 24, 2014 Subscribe

The self-correcting nature of science

By Adrian Lund, president of IIHS and HLDI

Scientific inquiry can be messy. Data don't always line up as neatly as we would like, and conclusions we may have believed to be resolute need revision in light of new findings. So goes our understanding of the public health problem of distracted driving.

The research we share with you in this special issue of Status Report is a product of our multiyear journey to attempt to understand and quantify the problem and determine possible countermeasures for effectively addressing it.

Almost 10 years ago, we said that "If you drive while phoning you're far more likely to get into a crash in which you'll be injured." The clear implication of this July 16, 2005, Status Report was that increasing driver use of cellphones would increase crash rates. That was early in the game.

We have since learned the relationship between cellphone use and crashes is far more complicated than this headline implied. We now understand that use of cellphones is only one of many ways in which drivers are distracted, and that increasing use of phones doesn't always increase crash risk, nor does decreasing their use necessarily reduce crash risk.

This doesn't invalidate the earlier research: Two carefully controlled epidemiological studies showed that people do crash more frequently when they talk on their phones. It is just that they also crash when they are distracted by other things — like talking to passengers, interacting with children or just daydreaming.

Our new research with VTTI confirms that a driver not using a cellphone is not necessarily more engaged with the driving task but, rather, may engage in other actions — intentionally or unintentionally — that take his or her attention off the road to the same or even greater extent. Future research will continue to correct our understanding and treatment of distracted driving. That is how science works.

This is not unlike the experience with antilock braking systems a few decades ago. Despite predictions by IIHS and others that were based on solid test track data, ABS didn't reduce crashes. This didn't mean that the track test data showing better braking were incorrect; rather we didn't understand that ABS lacked the necessary functionality to be more effective in the real world. Some years later, the introduction of electronic stability control — an enhancement of ABS — added that functionality by helping drivers maintain control of their vehicles, and now ESC is preventing thousands of crashes annually in the U.S.

Similarly, it is still true that cellphone distraction leads to crashes. But because it is only one of many distractions for drivers, reducing cellphone use isn't always enough to improve safety. To effectively reduce crashes, we need a holistic strategy that takes into account all kinds of distractions.

Widespread adoption of crash avoidance technologies is one vehicle-based solution that will likely reduce crashes in the future. While this technology will take some time to permeate the vehicle fleet, there are things that can be done in the near term to help reduce the overall problem of crashes on our roads. These include such proven countermeasures as adopting red light cameras, installing roundabouts in place of traffic signals and lowering speed limits on interstates and freeways. More than 30,000 crash deaths a year are unacceptable, no matter the cause, and we have the means to prevent them.

Searching for answers on distraction

A new study by IIHS and Virginia Tech helps clarify the risk of cellphone use behind the wheel and offers insight into other distracting behaviors that drivers engage in.

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