Apps Replace Texting At the Wheel For Most Drivers

Most offenders are teenagers, but adults also engage in distracted driving

Apps Replace Texting At the Wheel For Most Drivers
Image: Pexels
August 18, 2016

We've all seen them. We'll be driving down the highway and we'll glance at the car in the lane beside ours, and we'll see them. The driver is talking on his cell phone…or texting…or fiddling with a control on his dashboard, seemingly oblivious to the risks he is running. Now another behavior can be added to the list of distracted driving actions people routinely engage in: using apps on their smartphones.

Past campaigns against distracted driving have often focused on texting while driving, and they have often been directed at teenagers. Even insurance companies have joined in these efforts: AAA offers a free anti-texting magnetic bumper sticker at its Car Care Centers and Travel offices, and GEICO is running a campaign called " Stand Against Distracted Driving " in which the company makes a donation to one of several charities when drivers take an online pledge to drive without distractions.

These campaigns seem to have made a dent in the texting habits of teenagers while driving. A survey conducted by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Driving (SADD) found that only 27 percent still text and drive, or at least reported doing so. However, the same survey also found an alarming new trend among teens: 68 percent reported using smartphone apps while driving, and 80 percent surveyed do not see this behavior as dangerous.

"Teens as a whole are saying all the right things, but implicitly believe that using their phone while driving is safe and not a stressor or distraction behind the wheel," explained Dr. Gene Beresin, senior advisor on adolescent psychiatry with SADD.

Nor are teenagers the only drivers using apps while driving. WPVI-TV in Philadelphia reports that viewers caught and videotaped a woman texting with both hands as she drove down an expressway, steering with her feet on the wheel. The recording was made by a passenger in the viewers' vehicle, which followed the woman for at least 20 minutes and saw her swerve more than once. The article also mentions a woman in Colorado caught texting while driving on the interstate, one leg propped up on the dashboard.

It is illegal in North Carolina for drivers under the age of 18 to use a cell phone while driving except in an emergency, and no driver may text while driving regardless of age. However, state laws seem to have had little effect on the texting habits of such drivers, reports Consumer Affairs, despite the fact that drivers who receive a ticket for the offense will have their insurance rates raised.

The distracted driving problem may be exacerbated by the increasing prevalence of hands-free devices. "Vehicle Bluetooth systems that provide hands-free access for smartphone apps through the vehicle's infotainment system may have fostered what some believe to be a false sense of security," says Consumer Affairs.

This is dangerous because, as the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in a 2013 study, these behaviors have consequences including "suppressed brain activity, missed visual cues, slowed reaction times, subjective feelings of stress, and reduced visual scanning akin to 'tunnel vision.'"

It is for this reason that automakers are turning their attention to the production of self-driving vehicles. However, safety advocates are divided regarding whether this measure will be effective: some are concerned about the inherent danger of such vehicles, while others believe that "they will make the roads safer," says Consumer Affairs, "because the people who would ordinarily be driving them are in the back seat, updating their Facebook profiles."

Either way, it appears that the root of the issue is found less in the apps themselves and more in how—and when—people use them.