In Washington state's first study to examine driver use of electronic devices, investigators from the University of Washington found that more than 8 percent of drivers were engaged in the use of devices behind the wheel, higher than previously estimated. Among those driving distracted, nearly half (45 percent) were observed texting.
The study examined the behaviors of 7,800 drivers in six Washington counties. Using randomized observations at controlled intersections, the investigators recorded drivers engaged in a range of distracting activities, including texting and talking on the phone. The researchers found that the most common source of distraction was a hand-held device such as a cell phone. Among the 3.4 percent of drivers who were talking on a handheld phone, half were holding the device near or under the steering wheel, a behavior considered high-risk since a driver's attention is diverted from the road.
Motor vehicle injuries remain the leading cause of death for Americans under 35 years of age and estimates suggest that up to 28 percent of crash risk is attributable to cell phone use or text messaging in vehicles. While the use of cell phones in the United States has grown exponentially, enforcement of distracted driving laws has struggled to keep pace.
"These findings suggest that distracted driving is more common than we thought and that texting has become a major cause of distraction," said Dr. Beth Ebel, principal investigator with University of Washington Medicine's Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. "Most people support laws restricting texting and cell phone use in vehicles, yet some choose to engage in behaviors that put everyone on the road at risk. These traumatic injuries are entirely preventable," added Ebel. She noted that prior studies show texting while driving increases crash risk by 23 times, similar to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.19.
In 2010, Washington State adopted a primary enforcement law for hand-held mobile devices and text messaging with an imposed fine of $124. The rise in distracted driving is prompting increased attention from law enforcement. In a recent King County seat belt citation campaign more tickets were issued for cell phone use and texting than non-use of seat belts.
The data released today are preliminary results, part of a broader study conducted to explore the impact of enforcement on electronic distracted driving.