SD14 - Distracted Driving: Review of Current Needs, Efforts and Recommended Strategies

Executive Summary:

In recent years, drivers have been faced with a range of different challenges due to a variety of societal changes. The roadways have become more crowded, time appears to have become more precious, life stressors seem to be heightened, and frustration among drivers is increasing. These general factors are compounded with a range of technological advances, including those directly related to the automobile, those related to the driving setting, and those that otherwise affect driving. This confluence of factors brings with it the challenge of gaining greater understanding about the resulting multitasking by drivers.

Virginia Senate Joint Resolution 336, which passed in the 2001 General Assembly, called for a study of the "dangers imposed by distracted drivers." Further, one aim of this study was "to specifically examine the use of telecommunications devices by motor vehicle operators." To meet this directive, Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) asked George Mason University's Center for the Advancement of Public Health (GMU) to prepare a detailed study. The overall aim of this study was to examine the nature and scope of the problem associated with distracted driving, and to provide a clear set of findings and recommendations.

The multi-phase initiative was designed and implemented to address areas in which current approaches might be enhanced. The ultimate purpose of this review was to examine current data, practices, standards, attitudes, and related issues in Virginia as well as nationwide regarding distracted driving. The focus of this study was to identify specific strategies and sound recommendations for highway safety in Virginia.


To maximize the breadth and depth of this study, a multi-pronged approach was used to gather information and insights, and to serve as the foundation for the findings and recommendations. The blend of research and applied approaches serves as the foundation for the distinct strategies incorporated in this study.

The initial phase of this project was the preparation of a literature review. A comprehensive search was conducted to identify key studies, reports and research initiatives addressing distracted and inattentive driving issues. National data and statistics regarding the nature and scope of the problem with distracted driving are included in this segment. Occurring with this literature review was a curriculum and product review, including industry-produced materials, on-line interactive programs and materials, and consumer-targeted education/awareness campaigns.

A range of interviews was conducted. State leaders who serve as the chief highway safety official in each state were interviewed, with a resulting 100% response rate achieved in all states and the District of Columbia. Calls were also made to state legislators and legislative assistants from each state. Contact was made with several key informants who have expertise and experience with distracted driving issues. Virginia leaders, such as general district court judges who hear traffic safety cases, police officers, and driver education instructors, were contacted to gain their insights and perspectives about distracted driving issues. Intercept interviews were used to gather information from the average vehicle driver whose job requires the use of telecommunication devices frequently (such as sales personnel, couriers, repair personnel, school bus drivers, taxis, and drivers for hire).

A national survey of each state regarding efforts to address distracted driving was conducted to further identify issues such as the definition of distracted driving, perceptions of the problem, data collection, current legislative efforts, current preventive efforts, proposed attention to the issue through various approaches, and recommendations for the future. Virginia data and approaches include the specific nature and scope of distracted driving in the Commonwealth, including traffic safety information and current enforcement and educational strategies.

An applied approach was used with the self-assessment and behavioral monitoring approach which incorporated the use of a personalized assessment; citizens reflected upon their own driving and distracted driving behaviors over a one-week period of time, and reported on their monitoring of others' behaviors over the same period of time. Focus groups with targeted audiences statewide provided rich insight about a range of views from varying perspectives. Finally, a Stakeholder Discussion helped debrief key individuals on the initial results of the research, and gathered information on possible actions to address issues that emerge from the research.

Distracted Driving: A Brief Literature Review

An extensive literature review was conducted for this project, including the review of a wide range of studies and written materials. This brief overview provides some of the highlights of this assessment. In brief, the task of driving involves a complicated interaction of psychological, physical, cognitive, psychomotor, and sensory skills, placing high attentional demands on drivers. However, despite the complexity of the driving task, it is not uncommon to see drivers engaging in other tasks while operating a motor vehicle. While these may seem to be trivial tasks, they divert a driver's attention from the tasks of driving, thereby increasing the risk of a crash and creating a potential risk of injury to themselves and others.

Describing the nature and scope of the distracted driving issue is difficult. Rigorous empirical research into the issue is greatly lacking, and in the research that is available, the language is often different ("inattentive driving" versus "distracted driving"), and the operative definitions of key terms vary from one study to the next. Not surprisingly, statistics on the frequency and magnitude of the distracted driving issue vary nearly as widely as the definitions. To further complicate matters, research into crash causation, the role of particular casual or contributing factors, and prediction of crash incidence as a function of particular factors is a complex and nearly impossible task, thereby limiting the scope of research and its practicality. Despite a lack of consensus from the research, and likely mitigated by the role of media, American society has seemingly translated "distracted driving" to "talking on a cell phone while driving," and legislatures across the country are feeling the pressure to take action in the name of public safety.

One way of organizing distracted driving is based on frequently cited causal factors contributing to a crash. The overall theme throughout most of these is driver inattention, whereby the driver does not sufficiently address the factors for safe operation of the vehicle due primarily to a limited attentional state. These include "improper lookout" (including flawed visual surveillance, or "looked but did not see"), "inattention" (preoccupation with competing thoughts), and "internal distraction" (attention to events, activities, persons or objects inside the vehicle). Psychological and physiological inattention are found with factors such as drowsiness, physical fatigue, excess mental workload, and intoxication. The blend of driver factors of inattention and distraction generally comprise the scope of this issue.

Confounding the definitional considerations is the infiltration of technology into automobiles; this new technology field, known as telematics, focuses on wireless communication, both voice and data, between the car and elsewhere. New In-Vehicle Information Systems (IVIS) further confound the research and safety elements. Recent research examines the effects of involvement with telematics and IVIS systems on driver performance and safety, including divided attention. Some research has found decreases in horizontal and vertical gaze variability while mental tasks are performed, and others demonstrate the level of brain activity when two high-level cognitive tasks are conducted; these suggest that there may be biological mechanisms that limit brain activity and/or the nature and level of driver attention.

The issue of cellular phones and distracted driving has been the focal point of recent attention to the issue of distracted driving. Specifically, recent debate has arisen as to whether using a cell phone while driving increases the risk of a crash. While cell phone usage while driving is undoubtedly classified as a distraction, the empirical research concerning cell phone usage while driving is inconclusive. Several studies illustrate the difficulty in drawing clear conclusions, as they examine different factors. Numerous studies exploring the relationship between cellular phones and driver distraction can be found with varying methodologies and results. One study reports that 44% of people talk on a cell phone while driving, while another reports that this rate is 29%. A study cites that 13% of the drivers have either been involved in, or almost involved in, a crash as a result of talking on a cell phone while driving. A different study reports that motor vehicle crashes caused by cell phones account for only 1.5 percent of crashes. Further, a recent study compares the use of hands-free cell phones with no phone use; results show significant differences between the "phone" and "no phone" conditions; another study used both hand-held and hands-free phones, and found significant and equivalent degradation of driving performance in simulated conditions. While these studies are not necessarily inconsistent with one another, they do examine different aspects of the potential role played by cellular phones in automobile crashes. As a whole, this body of research suggests that using a cellular phone while driving can increase the risk of a motor vehicle crash. However, there is little research to identify or suggest the magnitude of this in real-world, real-time driving environments. Further, the professional literature identifies some of the benefits incorporated with cell phone use.

Measuring driver distraction or inattention to the driving task is a complex and highly difficult charge. Drivers may appear attentive but may be cognitively removed from the situation without any clear physical indication that there are multiple objects, actions, events, or persons competing for the driver's attention. Since safety associated with device use or driver distractions (as with other issues) cannot be measured directly, researchers use indirect measures to assess safety-related distraction effects (such as driver eye glance duration, frequency and patterns; driver-vehicle performance; driver control actions, and task completion time).

Several weaknesses and limitations exist in much of the evaluation research conducted in assessing safety or distraction potential. A great deal - if not the majority - uses only crash data to approximate the frequency and types of distraction drivers face. However, the majority of crashes are not due to a single cause, but rather have interacting causal or contributory factors that work together to bring about a crash situation. Therefore, numerous potential weaknesses exist in using crash data, including the omission of relevant factors from reports or consideration, the lack of knowledge about the extent of involvement of contributing factors, uncertain reliability of some factors, the lack of understanding of interactions among causal and/or contributing factors, and the difficulty in knowing the probabilities of occurrence of causal or contributing factors.

Recent media attention to the issue of cellular phone use while driving has generated pressure for state legislators to create laws to protect drivers and other users of roadways from motor vehicle crashes associated with cellular phone use. As of August 2001, at least 24 countries have restricted or prohibited cellular phones and other wireless technologies in motor vehicles. In the United States, the federal government has not passed legislation that would regulate the use of mobile phones and other wireless technologies in motor vehicles, yet lawmakers proposed in 2001 the first federal legislation to regulate cellular phone use in cars. Pressures to regulate cellular phone use have generated much more legislative activity at the state and local levels. At the state level, the year 2001 saw 44 states and the District of Columbia propose a collective 134 pieces of legislation related to technology and driver focus. This is a dramatic increase from the prior two years, in which 15 states considered cellular phone bills in 1999, and 27 in 2000.

A potential alternative to legislating the use of cellular phones or other wireless technologies in automobiles is to expand the scope of existing legislation to include certain distracting actions (e.g. eating, reading, or grooming) while driving. Indeed, more general distracted driver and driver inattention issues are garnering attention and concern.

In spite of the recent media attention to issues of driver distraction and inattention, there are surprisingly few products, instruments, materials, or curricula available that address driver distraction. Those that are available have only recently been produced and released, and have not been evaluated. "Teaching Your Teen to Drive" (MetLife Auto & Home) is a guide for parents to use during practice driving sessions. The American Automobile Association also offers a product to help parents teach their new young drivers how to drive; this resource, "Teaching Your Teens to Drive: A Partnership for Survival," includes a Parent/Teen Handbook divided into six parts, with a total of thirteen driving lessons. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) launched a "Responsible Driver" media effort in 1999 and has continued with annual efforts to increase awareness about distracted driving issues among the driving public. In 2000, General Motors (OM) launched its "SenseAble Driving" campaign to educate consumers about the dangers of driver distraction through a combination of research, education, and technology. In 2000, the National Driver Development Program "Traffic Safety Education Life Long Learning Process" was prepared and released by the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA), Highway Safety Center, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) has taken a lead in developing a Distracted Driver Tool Kit, "Who's Driving? The Distracted Driver: A Lesson in Road Sense," designed for employers, highway safety professionals, law enforcement, safety community coordinators, driver training instructors and others. Shell Oil Company launched a campaign focusing on driver distraction; "Deadly Distractions" includes print publications, television commercials, a web site, and safe driving booklets available at Shell stations nationwide.

In 2001, Virginia began implementing new Standards of Learning and a new curriculum for Driver Education. Standard DE 11 specifically addresses driver distraction and inattention; this section within the curriculum directs driver education instructors to discuss distracted driving with their students.

Overall, while some driver behaviors - such as eating, drinking, or changing CDs in the car - may have become almost second-nature to the driving task, new advances in in-vehicle technologies and increasing availability to consumers have brought distracted driving to the forefront of traffic safety issues, and warrants serious consideration in order to ensure the safety of all users of shared roadways. Despite the work that has been accomplished so far, the literature review suggests that only a foundation has been laid.

Findings and Recommendations

A wide range of findings emerges from this study. These are organized based on nine overall themes or clusters of findings. Associated with the findings within each theme are recommendations. In the complete Report of Findings, each specific finding includes an explanation with supporting documentation. The Report of Findings offers recommendations organized around each thematic area; each recommendation outlines an overall perspective of the content and context of the recommendation, with detailed implementation considerations best accomplished through ongoing discussions among key constituencies, agencies, and groups.

Theme 1 - Research

With the issue of distracted driving, research is relatively sparse but emerging. The findings address:

• Inconsistent terminology, limited naturalistic and rigorous research, and no documentation of best practices
• A lack of clear specification about the nature and scope of the problem (including the role of cell phones in automobile crashes)

The recommendations within the research theme emphasize the need to increase the breadth and depth of data collection, research and evaluation. Included is the need to clearly define distracted driving, including better use of existing information sources. Attention to the range of individual variabilities regarding multitasking and its impact on distracted driving should be examined. The specific role of cell phones and other telecommunications devices should be clearly addressed.

Theme 2 - Education/Awareness/Training

While increasing, limited attention is provided to the significant dangers of distracted driving. The findings address:

• Recent increases in media coverage on the subject of distracted driving, including cell phones
• Inadequate attention to distracted driving in current driver education efforts
• Limited training on multitasking, and limited substance and direction in existing resources
• Lack of public awareness regarding personal involvement with distracted driving

The wide range of recommendations prepared for this theme address multiple strategies. Attention to educating the general public can be accomplished through public awareness campaigns. Focused attention should be paid to key groups (such as young drivers and older drivers) as well as to intermediaries to reach the driver (including the media, employers, police, and judges). Education efforts should incorporate skills training, safe multitasking, and the issues of perceived severity and perceived susceptibility. Significant attention to distracted driving issues is warranted for driver education programs, both for novice drivers and with driver improvement programs.

Theme 3 - Legislation and Policy

With the increase in media attention on cell phones and distracted driving, there is an increase in proposed legislation and policy approaches related to this issue. The findings address:

• Nationally, a tendency to seek legislative approaches to address distracted driving, without clear support by research
• A tendency to focus on cell phones, rather than the broader area of distracted driving, in proposed bills

The recommendations in this area emphasize that proposed legislation should be supported by up-to-date research and evaluation findings, including quality data regarding the specific role of the use of cellular phones. Also encouraged are increased education and more data collection. Further attention to distracted driving issues can be accomplished by encouraging the role of individual worksites as well as engaging aspects of the driver licensing process.

Theme 4 - Enforcement

A multitude of factors limit the complete and accurate reporting of the role that distracted driving behaviors play in crashes. The findings address:

• Few standard approaches for documenting or reporting distracted driving
• A limited ability to cite because distracted driving is not a specific offense
• The lack of willingness by many drivers to admit cell phone use
• The need for greater enforcement of current laws
• The role of judges

Recommendations address improvements to crash reporting and citation forms as well as enforcement of existing laws that encompass distracted driving behaviors. Law enforcement personnel are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities for "teachable moments" regarding distracted driving. Further, since many states are grappling with this issue, new strategies and approaches should be widely shared.

Theme 5 - Confounding Social Factors

A range of new and confounding factors contributes to driver distraction. The findings address:

• A change of driving conditions such as traffic, time constraints, blurring between work and non-work
• Increased technological resource availability for drivers
• Tension between individual liberties and safety considerations

Recommendations in this thematic area are linked to those in the research and educational themes. The evolutionary nature of distracted driving shows the need to remain up-to-date with emerging research and strategies issues with key constituencies, including automobile manufacturers and those who manufacture in-vehicle technologies. The general driving public should be engaged in public discussions and should be informed about how to use technology safely in an automobile.

Theme 6 - Culture Lag

Technology available in vehicles has developed rapidly. The findings address:

• Innovation and technological availability moving faster than cultural and social "readiness"
• Few proactive efforts discussions regarding safe use of equipment

Recommendations made for this theme include the development of norms and acceptable etiquette for safe driving. Included in this preparation should be anticipatory thinking about emerging and to-be-developed technology. To develop these standards, responsibility should not rest with a single group, agency, or individual; rather, a wide range of groups should be engaged at the local and state levels to identify consistent and mutually reinforcing approaches.

Theme 7 - Lack of Clarity in Defining The Issue

It is difficult to determine how much distracted driving actually occurs, including different points of view and the relative role of technological devices. The findings address:

• Ambiguity among a range of groups about the nature and extent of distracted driving
• Different perspectives about proposed strategies and approaches
• Lack of appropriate dialogue among key constituency groups

To address these findings, recommendations call for efforts that are both research-based and realistic, as well as engaging a range of key constituencies about varying perspectives, new research and new findings. Further, messages should be developed, with media encouraged to use them.

Theme 8 - Leadership

Limitations are found in the nature of leadership on this issue, particularly with the lack of a comprehensive, research-driven approach. The findings address:

• Lack of leadership at national and state levels
• A call for leadership made by state highway safety officials nationwide
• Lack of prioritization of the issue of distracted driving

Recommendations within this theme include the clear acknowledgement for a multi-pronged, consistent approach to address distracted driving. This calls for oversight and benchmarking at the state level, as well as sharing approaches among state and local leadership personnel. The important leadership role of the media in helping address distracted driving is also emphasized.

Theme 9 - Human Factors and Behaviors

Individual variation in driving capabilities is the basis for this theme. The findings address:

• Limitations on individual cognitive abilities, multitasking, and primary and secondary tasks
• Drivers' perspectives about the complexity of driving and the need to update driving skills

The recommendations emphasize realistic and workable strategies, with the ultimate aim of reaching drivers about their personal variabilities with respect to driving safety. For those who implement information and awareness strategies, an understanding of the range of audience needs is helpful; a media kit would assist with presenting clear, consistent message.