Although the inclusion of distracted driving as an emphasis area in the state’s SHSP may not be warranted based on the current reported crash data alone, a decision was made by the state to include it as an emphasis area based on many other factors, including a current review of the national research (as mentioned below), as well as the likelihood that many of the fatal and severe-injury crashes that result from distracted driving are currently underreported in South Carolina.
Driving distracted is engaging in any activity that could divert one’s attention from the primary task of driving. This includes general inattentiveness, cell phone use/texting, eating, drinking, attending to objects inside or outside the vehicle, and manipulating vehicle controls. Concerning cell phone use, research has shown that because of the degree of cognitive distraction associated with the use of hand-held devices, the behavior of drivers using them may be equivalent to the behavior of drivers with a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration. Additionally, studies have shown that a driver engaged in cell phone use is four times more likely to be involved in a collision, with no significant safety difference observed between using a hand-held or hands-free device.
The data analysis reflected in this section adheres to the standard definition of distracted driving as just presented. Driver distraction or inattention is listed as a possible contributing factor to a collision on South Carolina’s collision report form. Cell phone use and texting are also listed on the report form. All four factors are included in the analysis of distracted driving-related collisions. In South Carolina, distracted driving is a factor in an average of 50 fatal crashes annually, ranging from a high of 60 to a low of 40 crashes.
According to a study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2011, an estimated 3,000 deaths and approximately 400,000 injuries occur annually as a result of distracted driving-related motor vehicle collisions. Results from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) indicated that the percentage of drivers who were text messaging or manipulating is on the rise, increasing from 0.9 percent in 2010 to 1.3 percent in 2011. The 2011 NOPUS also found that hand-held cell phone use is highest among females and drivers in the 16- to 24-year-old age group. The percentage of drivers observed manipulating hand-held devices in this age group more than doubled from 2010 to 2011 (1.5% to 3.7%).
Distracted driving as a contributing factor in collisions is difficult to determine, since investigating officers often must rely primarily on self-reporting, and drivers may have a vested interest in not reporting the reality of their own distraction. Witness testimony and evidence indicating distraction can also lead to the determination of driver distraction. Driver distraction is suspected to be underreported in fatal and severe-injury collisions because police investigators frequently have difficulty confirming distraction as a factor.
While cell phone-involved distraction currently receives a lot of attention, it is rarely reported as a contributing factor in collisions when distractions are noted. For instance, during the 2008-2012 time period, only 19 fatality reports noted driver cell phone use as a contributing factor. Texting was added to South Carolina’s collision report form in 2011, and only one fatality report in 2012 noted driver texting as a contributing factor. Despite collision data limitations, observational data suggest that distracted driving is on the rise.
One of the state’s biggest challenges regarding making strides in this emphasis area will be identifying the opportunities to improve the collection and/or reporting of distracted driving-related crashes in the future. This will enable safety experts in South Carolina to be able to not only determine the extent of the distracted driving problem in the state, but also to get a better understanding of the appropriate countermeasures to implement.