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Changes in the sources of distracted driving among Northern Virginia drivers in 2014 and 2018: a comparison of results from two roadside observation surveys

Kidd, David G.; Chaudhary, Neil K.
Journal of Safety Research
February 2019

An increase in distracted driving has been suggested as a factor contributing to the 15% increase in fatal crashes from 2014 to 2016, but objective information about the prevalence of distracted driving in recent years is incomplete or lacking. The current study replicated a 2014 observation study conducted in Northern Virginia to examine whether the prevalence of distracted driving overall and of individual secondary behaviors has changed. Drivers of moving or stopped vehicles were observed at 12 locations across four Northern Virginia communities during the daytime. The presence of 12 different secondary behaviors was recorded. In 2018, about 23% of drivers were engaged in at least one secondary behavior, which was not significantly different from 2014. Overall phone use was not significantly different between 2014 and 2018. However, the likelihood of holding a cellphone significantly decreased while the likelihood of manipulating a cellphone significantly increased in 2018 relative to 2014. About 14% of drivers were engaged in noncellphone secondary behaviors in 2014 and 2018, which exceeded the proportion using phones in both years. In conclusion, there was no evidence that distracted driving has become more common in recent years, but the prevalence of some secondary behaviors has changed. Most concerning was the 57% increase in the likelihood of cellphone manipulation in 2018 relative to 2014, a behavior that has been consistently linked to increased crash risk; however, because the behavior is uncommon overall, the increased prevalence would be expected to only slightly increase crash rates. Efforts aimed at reducing cellphone use while driving should continue and be expanded to include all sources of distraction.