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Distraction is everywhere: Behind the wheel, on the sidewalk …

Distraction is everywhere: Behind the wheel, on the sidewalk …

Did you know that the 4th of July holiday period is now one of the deadliest stretches of days for motorists on U.S. highways? That caught me by surprise. Then again, it shouldn’t – especially this year, as record numbers of travelers are going to hit the roads before, during, and after Independence Day.

AAA, for one, projects nearly 43 million Americans will travel during the Independence Day holiday stretch, which it defines as Thursday June 30 through Monday July 4, with 36 million or 84% conducting that travel by motor vehicle – an increase of 1.2% versus last year.

Those numbers represent the highest 4th of July travel volume on record, likely spurred by some of the lowest gasoline prices experienced in the U.S. since 2005, noted Marshall Doney, AAA’s president and CEO.

Indeed, he added that U.S. motorists have saved about $20 billion on gasoline so far this year compared to the same period in 2015, thus making travel – especially by car – more affordable.

Yet all that travel is going to occur alongside a lot of unnecessary danger, as many will be texting, talking, or surfing the web with their smart phones while behind the wheel – and such “distracted driving” only seems to be getting worse.

For example, in a study conducted by the California Office of Traffic Safety (COTS) in April this year, at least 12.8% of Golden State drivers were observed using a mobile device during the day, up from 9.2% in 2015 and eclipsing the previous high of 10.8% in 2013.

Due to the difficulty of observing mobile device use in a vehicle, though, Rhonda Craft, director of COTS, said those figures are considered “minimums” with actual usage likely several points higher.

“These latest numbers are discouraging, but not totally unexpected,” she noted in a statement. “The number of smart phones in the U.S. has gone from zero, 10 years ago, to over 200 million today. They have become so much a part of our lives that we can’t put them down, even when we know the danger.”

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) issued 13,496 citations alone for distracted driving back in April, and data from the CHP’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System shows that, in 2014, some 22,652 people were involved in collisions in which distracted driving was a factor.

From 2013 to 2015, CHP added that the number of drivers killed or injured in collisions in which distracted driving was a factor increased every year, from 10,162 in 2013, to 10,548 in 2014, and to 11,090 in 2015.

“Distraction occurs any time drivers take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, and their minds off their primary task of driving safely,” stressed CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow in a statement. “Any non-driving activity is a potential distraction and increases the risk of a collision.”

Yet despite such numbers, drivers seem less concerned about the dangers of distracted driving. The COTS study found that the observed usage rates appear to confirm previous studies, which show more drivers admit to using mobile devices “sometimes” or “regularly.”

And while fewer drivers believe that talking or texting on a cell phone is a major safety problem, the percentage of those who say they have been hit or nearly hit by a driver using a cell phone remains steady at nearly 60%, according to COTS data.

Other findings from the group’s distracted driving survey include:

  • Though nearly all types of usage were up, typing and posting increased by more than one third.
  • The highest observed electronic device use and the fastest increase in usage is in urban areas, at 9.4%.
  • Electronic device use during rush hours increased by 71% in 2016.
  • The percentage of 16 to 24 year-olds talking on hand-held cell phones increased from less than 1% every year since 2012 to more than 2% in 2016.
  • Southern California drivers hold the phone to their ear at a rate double (3.8%) or more that of Central California drivers (1.9%) and Northern California drivers (1.4%).

“The study results are disturbing,” CHP’s Farrow noted. “Every time someone drives distracted, they are putting themselves, their passengers and everyone on or near the roadway at risk.”

And now a similar risk seems to be growing on our nation’s sidewalks as well due to what’s being called “distracted walking.”

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI) recently worked with the Harris Poll to conduct an online survey this month of 2,025 adults ages 18 and older and found that some of the very U.S. cities considered the most “walkable” in terms of being pedestrian-friendly may also be the most dangerous for pedestrians due to – you guessed it – smart phone usage.

When asked which U.S. cities they might expect to witness distracted pedestrians, three in four Americans said New York City, which is also the city considered to be the most walkable (57%). Other walkable cities where high numbers of “distracted pedestrians” are expected include Washington, D.C. (26% walkable; 41% distracted), Las Vegas (32%; 26%), Chicago (19%; 31%), and San Francisco (27%; 27%).

“Distracted walking could be as dangerous as distracted driving,” noted Robert Passmore, PCI’s assistant vice president personal lines policy, in a statement. “Urban areas are now faced with the growing threat of pedestrians glued to smart phones, putting themselves as well as motorists in greater danger.”

He added that while “multi-tasking while walking through downtown” might seem like a time saver, it’s actually putting not just pedestrians but motorists in danger, too.

“Pedestrians on smartphones take longer to cross the street, and even if they check for cars before crossing, all too often they turn their attention back to their phones while still in the middle of the intersection,” Passmore said.

Mix all of this distracted behavior into a heavy travel period like the Independence Day holiday – one that will also require a lot of truckers to be on the road – and you can see why the danger level will only be heightened along U.S. roadways.

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