After seeing an amazing decrease in the number of deaths on our roadways in the past several decades, it was very surprising to learn that the total number of deaths on American’s roadways increased in 2015.
Even with improvements in road and vehicle engineering, changes to passenger restraint laws and decreases in alcohol-impaired driving — which have all helped to improve driver and passenger safety — the number of deaths caused by traffic crashes is sobering.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 32,744 people died in crashes nationally in 2014. The number rose to 35,092 in 2015, ending a 50-year trend of declining fatalities. The last single-year increase of this magnitude was in 1966. And the numbers show traffic deaths rising across nearly every segment of the population.
Idaho is seeing a similar trend. According to the Idaho Office of Highway Safety, the number of motor vehicle crashes increased from 2014 to 2015, along with the number of deaths from vehicle crashes. Unfortunately, 186 Idahoans lost their lives in traffic crashes in 2014, with 216 dying in 2015.
Multiple causes might be contributing to this increase, but distracted driving behaviors appear to be playing a large role. In recent years, nearly one-quarter of motor vehicle deaths were caused by distracted driving.
So what is a distraction?
Distracted driving crashes are those where the investigating law enforcement officer indicates that either inattention or a distraction in or on the vehicle was a contributing factor in the crash. Distraction is visual (taking your eyes off the road); manual (taking your hands off the wheel); and cognitive (taking your mind off the road).
Most of us think we are pretty good drivers and may even pride ourselves on our ability to multitask while driving. We have so many things to do in a day that we find ourselves living out of our vehicles during commute time.
We make up for frenzied schedules by eating, applying makeup, searching for music, checking our navigation systems, managing children, participating in conference calls and doing other things while we drive. We become masterful at getting it all done. We don’t think our activities will affect our ability to respond quickly should we need to stop, swerve or react in other ways.
Put down the phone
However, the things we do in our vehicles to save time take our attention away from our driving and increase the risk for a crash. As more of us have become smartphone users, the risks of distracted driving have increased further with the temptation to use social media, check email and even search the web while driving.
The crash rates have worsened – more than half of the deaths from distracted driving were specifically because of electronic communication devices such as smartphones.
Unfortunately, youthful drivers, who are more likely to get into a crash, are also more likely to be avid users of smartphones. In national observational surveys, drivers ages 16 to 24 years old were more than twice as likely to be seen visibly manipulating hand-held devices compared to drivers ages 25 to 69.
Distracted Driving Task Force
In response to this concern, the Idaho Department of Transportation has created the Distracted Driving Task Force. Working with Idaho law enforcement, the department has created the “Just Drive Aware” campaign.
This campaign emphasizes education about the dangers of distracted driving, changes in workplace policies to prohibit use of electronic devices while driving, and the use of the Parent-Teen Driving Contract, available online at distraction.gov/take-action/take-the-pledge.html.
Visit that site, and then sign the pledge with your teen driver. Make safe driving your goal for 2017.
Model your behavior to avoid distractions and focus on your driving when you are behind the wheel. Put your phone away, apply your makeup at home and find good music to listen to when you’re stopped. Or better yet, have your passenger choose the tunes.
Let’s all resolve to do our part to reverse the increase in the number of crashes and fatalities from distracted driving.
Elke Shaw-Tulloch, master of health sciences, is the state health officer and Division of Public Health administrator with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Find out more about services at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.
AAA report: Drivers overestimate their skills and habits
With crash fatalities increasing dramatically in 2015, a casual approach to safe driving habits may be part of the problem, according to a new AAA survey.
While nationally, vehicle crash fatalities increased 7.2 percent in 2015, the problem was worse in Idaho. The Idaho Transportation Department reports that Gem State crash fatalities increased 16.1 percent during the same period – more than two times the national average.
Nearly one in three U.S. drivers has a friend or relative that has been seriously injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash. “Many Americans have experienced the personal loss that follows when safe driving is overlooked,” says AAA Idaho spokesman Matthew Conde. “When drivers don’t feel personally responsible to behave safely behind the wheel, tragedy isn’t far behind.”
AAA’s 2016 Traffic Safety Culture Index reports broad social support for safe driving across a wide range of issues, but on an individual level, drivers are more likely to participate in risky behavior they would not tolerate from their counterparts:
Nearly all drivers (96.7 percent) disapprove of drinking and driving, yet 13 percent of respondents admit to driving at least once in the past year when they thought their alcohol level was close to or above the legal limit. In 2015, Idaho recorded 87 impaired driving crash fatalities, an increase of 20.8 percent.
AAA Idaho is calling for an all-offender ignition interlock device (IID) program. IIDs require a driver to blow clean air into the device before the vehicle can start.
Cellphones have become a bigger source of distraction for many drivers. Most drivers (91.7 percent) believe distracted driving is a somewhat or much bigger problem than three years ago. At the same time, more than two in three drivers (68.2 percent) say they have talked on a cellphone in the past 30 days; more than 40 percent have read a text or an email during that time frame.
“The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has partnered with the University of Utah to conduct a landmark study on the distracted driving problem,” Conde said. “Regardless of what drivers are doing with their hands, any interaction with a mobile device creates a level of cognitive distraction that’s dangerous to everyone on the road.”
According to ITD, distracted driving was a factor in 23 percent of Idaho’s motor vehicle crashes in 2015, with 51 people killed that year.
Speeding and red-light running are also counted among the bad habits of many U.S. drivers. Nearly half of drivers (45.6 percent) say they have driven 15 miles per hour over the speed limit on a freeway in the past month, and more than 1 in 3 drivers admit to driving through a red light in the past 30 days, when they could have stopped safely.
Aggressive driving was a contributing factor in 52 percent of Idaho’s motor vehicle crashes in 2015, leading to 12,383 crashes and 77 fatalities – an increase of nearly 7 percent.
Experts report that 35 percent of Americans fall short of the recommended seven hours of daily sleep. According to a recent AAA study, drivers who sleep four to five hours instead of the recommended seven quadruple their risk of being in a crash. That’s the same as driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit in all 50 states.
While nearly 85 percent of respondents say that drowsy driving is a serious threat to personal safety, nearly 3 in 10 also acknowledged they have driven at least one time in the past 30 days when they were so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that drowsy driving contributes to 21 percent of car crash fatalities nationwide.
Take Safety Personally
“In many cases, drivers think they can outperform everyone else on the road, but with fatalities on the rise, that attitude just doesn’t match the reality,” Conde said. “It isn’t enough to discourage someone else’s bad driving behavior. We all have a part to play in traffic safety.”
Learn more about AAA Idaho at aaa.com. Information contributed by AAA Idaho.
Read more about safe driving
▪ Idaho Transportation Department: itd.idaho.gov/safety
▪ U.S. Department of Transportation: transportation.gov/briefing-room/traffic-fatalities-sharply-2015
▪ Idaho Office of Highway Safety: apps.itd.idaho.gov/apps/ohs/Crash/15/Analysis2015final.pdf
▪ National Occupant Protection Use Survey: healthindicators.gov/Resources/DataSources/NOPUS_100/Profile
▪ Idaho Teen Driving: idahoteendriving.org