In The News
Insurance company starts campaign to make distracted driving as frowned upon as drunk driving
Image-wise, the insurance industry doesn’t usually inspire warm fuzzies. To most of us, an insurer’s interest in human pain and suffering looks to be strictly a matter of business, expressed in cumbersome, nearly undecipherable paperwork, jacked-up premiums and dispassionate number-crunching.
But insurance people are people, too, and they took notice when statistics indicated U.S. traffic fatalities had increased by an unusually high rate of 6.7 percent in 2015 and then by another 6.5 percent in 2016. It was the largest two-year percentage jump in 50 years, and it brought the 2016 total to over 40,000 road fatalities.
“That got our attention,” said Joan Woodward, executive vice president of public policy for Travelers Companies Inc. and president of the Travelers Institute, the company’s public policy division. “We thought it was our responsibility to call attention to the matter. It’s really, honestly looking at ourselves and saying, ‘we can do something about this crisis in America.’”
On November 6, Travelers launched the Every Second Matters national initiative to call attention to the growing problem of distracted driving. The campaign opened with three live presentations and will continue throughout 2018 with forums at universities across the country.
They’ve also produced: “Every Second Matters: A Conversation Starter on Reducing Distracted Driving Risk,” a 10-page report on the dangers of distracted driving that can be found here.
The campaign uses statistical information to show that while most Americans believe distracted driving is dangerous, far too many of them are guilty of it.
“This nationwide campaign is to raise awareness and really change social norms about how we think about distracted driving,” Woodward said. “We want to equate this distracted driving crisis in this country to the similar thing that happened with drunk driving.”
It may be hard to believe for someone not old enough to remember it firsthand, but only a few decades ago there was a winking acceptance of the idea of hoisting a few and getting behind the wheel. While stiffer laws and enforcement of those laws played a part, it was a pervasive cultural campaign over several years that changed public opinion on drunken driving. Similar campaigns were successful in getting people to wear seatbelts and to use child car seats. The aim of the Every Second Matters campaign is to do the same with distracted driving
According to information by the National Safety Council, traffic fatalities haven’t varied too much from year to year since 2000, with two exceptions: the increase in 2015-2016 and a sharp drop in 2008 and 2009. Woodward said that decrease was because of a combination of the recession and the high price of gas at the time, both of which kept people off the roads.
Even as those two factors subsided, road fatalities remained fairly steady from year to year. But another significant change in recent years is that smartphones were not yet ubiquitous and had not become a compulsive habit for so many people back in 2009.
Distracted driving is nothing new. It’s anything that takes your eyes off the task of driving. “We’re an insurance company,” Woodward said. “We see claims for accidents for all sorts of reasons.”
People eat and drink in their cars, she said. Women put on makeup, men shave while driving. Passengers, especially children, can be a distraction. Working the car’s controls can be a distraction. Things you see along the highway can be distracting. Sometimes a person’s mind just wanders.
But nowadays, when people talk about distracted driving, it’s become almost synonymous with using electronic devices, especially smartphones, while driving.
“They’re very distracted. They’re on their phone, they’re on their music, they’re talking, they’re texting, they’re distracted with all the infotainment that we have in our cars today,” Woodward said.
Travelers recently commissioned a Harris Poll survey on work-related distracting driving. The survey found that 43 percent of those who drive at some point during their workweek, not counting their daily commute, make or answer work-related calls, texts or e-mails while driving.
The survey also found that there is an age gap in this behavior. While about 54 percent of both millennials — those ages 18-34 — and Generation X (ages 35-44) drivers admitted to communicating while driving, the percentage dropped off quickly, to 37 percent of those 45-54, and only 33 percent of those 55-65.
There also seems to be a generational divide when it comes to attitudes toward using devices while behind the wheel. The 2017 Travelers Risk Index, an annual survey of Americans’ concerns on various topics, found that although 80 percent of drivers say they know using personal technology while driving is risky, 23 percent still admitted doing it. That’s despite 10 percent of drivers saying they’d been in an accident and 30 percent of drivers reporting they’d had a near-miss due to their own distracted driving.
While millennials are more concerned about their own distracted driving than older drivers are, they are less likely to perceive using technology as a risky distraction. Woodward believes there are a couple of factors at play.
For one, older drivers grew up “without having to have a cellphone attached to your eyeballs.”
The index also showed that drivers of all ages are more concerned about other people being distracted than of their own distraction. That’s not entirely bad, Woodward points out.
“Our campaign is a little different,” she said. “We’re telling people you may think you’re a safe driver, you may think you can handle answering that text while driving. We’re not saying, ‘You know you’re bad, you know you have to stop.’”
Instead, part of the campaign is to get the average driver to understand even if they are fully committed to driving smart, they have to assume no one else on the road around them is, that anyone, pedestrians included, are distracted.
And the more drivers start adopting this perspective — that all these other people are creating a hazard — the more they will start speaking up against the practice and the more it will create a stigma around distracted driving, much as it happened with drinking and driving.
“We want to encourage kids and teens when they’re in the back seat to speak up,” Woodward said. “We want people to say this is not acceptable anymore.”