Study: Americans Are Becoming More Distracted Drivers

Are Americans getting worse at driving? When compared to drivers in the rest of the world, this might be the case.

A cursory glance at the numbers shows that auto accident deaths have been steadily falling in the U.S. since the 1970s. In 1972, the nation saw a peak of 54,589 auto deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By 2014, this number fell to 32,675.

But dig deeper into the numbers, and it becomes clear that the trend hasn't been as positive as it initially seemed. According to a new, comprehensive study by the World Health Organization, the U.S. is actually falling behind the rest of the industrialized world in terms of auto safety. The study found that the U.S. is ranked 17th out of 29 developed nations when comparing auto deaths per 100,000 people.

We used to be higher in the ranking. What happened? Some researchers believe that Americans are simply too distracted while on the road.

Are American Drivers Becoming More Distracted?
In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that drivers are distracted nearly 50 percent of the time.

"Some researchers believe that Americans are simply too distracted while on the road."

The biggest distraction? Unsurprisingly, cell phones proved to be the biggest problem. Dialing a phone number or texting were found to increase the risk of an accident by several orders of magnitude. Even simply talking on the phone doubled the risk.

But researchers also noted that even behaviors that are thought to be benign may pose an additional risk. For instance, holding a conversation with a passenger increased the risk of an accident by a factor of 1.4. Not a large increase, but one that shows just how easy it can be to become distracted while behind the wheel.

"These findings are important because we see a younger population of drivers, particularly teens, who are more prone to engaging in distracting activities while driving," Tom Dingus, the study's lead author and the director of VTTI, said in a statement. "Our analysis shows that, if we take no steps in the near future to limit the number of distracting activities in a vehicle, those who represent the next generation of drivers will only continue to be at greater risk of a crash."

Studies like these are one of the main reasons why safety advocates are so enthusiastic about the possibility of automatic braking technology, and eventually fully automated vehicles. Once this technology is perfected and introduced to masses, it will significantly reduce the risk that distracted driving can present. However, advanced brake testing services will be required to get it right.