Over the course of several decades, auto crash rates and fatalities had been on the decline. This reduction offset slightly increased crash severity and helped to moderate the cost of auto insurance. However, starting in 2014, there were sharp increases in crashes and deaths on our nation’s roads.
Auto crash deaths rose by 13 percent between 2014 and 2017, according to preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council. If the estimate for 2017 holds, it will be the second consecutive year that motor vehicle deaths topped 40,000.
It isn’t just drivers getting injured. The number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed has increased as well. Studies by the Governors Highway Safety Association show that while pedestrian deaths may have leveled off in 2017, there was an alarming rise in fatalities during 2015 and 2016.
Many believe that one of the reasons for the increase may be that too many people think they can multitask and effectively drive a 3,000-pound car.
A recent study by True Motion, a smartphone usage-based insurance technology firm, found that 92 percent of drivers using their UBI application interacted with their smartphone while driving, and 71 percent interacted with their phone manually — using it to text or use apps like YouTube, Facebook, and Gmail.
Distracted driving is not the only problem linked to the recent spike in auto crashes. The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America analyzed recent auto accident claim trends and found an increase in overall miles driven, bad roads, higher speed limits, and marijuana-impaired driving are all contributing factors. But the factor most strongly linked to increases in auto accident claims is urban congestion. More vehicles on increasingly congested roads means more temptation to multitask.
The problem of distracted driving must be addressed on multiple fronts. The good news is that state legislatures across the country are doing what they can to cast light on this critical subject and strengthen distracted driving laws.
During the 2017-2018 legislative sessions, at least 20 states considered legislation to deter distracted driving. While many of the measures were not approved, their introduction spurred important debate and examination of ways to curb this dangerous habit.
Arizona, Florida and South Dakota considered legislation to ban texting while driving or make it a primary offense, which enables law enforcement to pull drivers over for talking on their hand-held phone without observing another violation. Colorado, Hawaii and New York looked at providing law enforcement with software tools that allow them to detect how many times a driver in a car crash touched their cell phone while driving. New definitions of distracted driving are needed in statute to include posting to social media and streaming video. Insurers and highway safety advocates will continue educating the public about the need for these new laws and urging lawmakers to consider them again in future legislative sessions.
Highway safety laws were improved in a variety of states during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions. In 2017, 12 states approved legislation to combat distracted driving by strengthening law enforcement, increasing penalties and fines, and focusing on education and awareness efforts. In 2017, Texas banned texting while driving and made it a primary offense in traffic stops. Montana remains the only state with no ban on texting of any kind. Washington has one of the strongest laws, banning a wide variety of uses of a hand-held phone and requiring the violation to be reported to a driver’s insurer.
Having the right distracted driving laws is important, but enforcing those laws is also essential. It will take a coordinated strategy combining strong laws, enforcement, public education, and personal responsibility to change drivers’ behavior behind the wheel.
Passmore is assistant vice president of personal lines policy with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. Phone: 847-297-7800; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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