Perception of distracted driving as a serious threat is diminishing, study shows

Though commercials on the harmful effects of distracted driving might permeate the television screen and radio programs, a new study shows drivers are less likely to perceive this as risky behavior.
As concerns have decreased, annual traffic fatalities increased about 5.3 percent in 2012, a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety four-year analysis found. This included texting or emailing while driving, running red lights and driving after drinking or while drowsy.
And state and local agencies have been active in education, enforcement and prosecution, officials said, as the number of fatalities on Carroll roads increased from 13 in 2011 to 20 in 2012.
"The recent spike in fatal and serious injury collisions demonstrates how low the fatality rate had been driven over the last several years," said Col. Phil Kasten, Carroll County Sheriff's Office spokesman. "However, the drivers' decisions to participate in unsafe behaviors is metered largely on their past experience in being able to successfully or unsuccessfully engage in that behavior."
Those who perceived driving after drinking as a serious threat decreased from 90 percent in 2009 to 69 percent in 2012, the study shows.
Sheriff's deputies issued 188 traffic citations in 2012 for driving under the influence, Kasten said.
Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry Barnes said about 60 percent of the cases prosecuted are first-time offenders. He said officials in the State's Attorney's Office "vigorously prosecute DUI cases."
Running a red light is completely unacceptable, according to 70 percent of respondents. That's a decrease from the 77 percent who believed in that statement in 2009.
Those who believe texting or emailing while driving is a serious threat decreased from 87 percent of those surveyed in 2009 to 81 percent in 2012, the study shows.
About 26 percent of respondents indicated that they'd texted while driving, which is up 5 percent from 2009.
Texting while driving is a primary offense in Maryland, and using a handheld phone will become one, as well, Oct. 1. And Maryland Highway Safety Office Chief Thomas Gianni said he anticipates that will have an effect on reducing the crash level.
There was a drastic reduction in those that perceive driving while drowsy as a serious threat. In 2009, 71 percent believed it was very dangerous. Three years later, that number decreased to 46 percent of respondents, according to the study's data.
During the past five years, an average of 17 people died, and 975 were injured in crashes on Carroll roads per year, according to Maryland Highway Safety Office data.
At the time, it's unclear why those crashes occurred. However, in the future, analysts will be able to craft data that addresses this issue, Gianni said, as Maryland State Police is unrolling a new police report form for all agencies.
The new forms require an officer to address if the crash was linked to distracted driving and to name that distraction. The hope is that it'll be fully functional within all police departments in about 18 months, Gianni said.
For now, motorists need to realize these behaviors pose a public safety threat, said Christine Delise, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman. She wrote in an email that it's unclear why perceptions have changed, as respondents were not asked to address that.
The data should serve as a reminder to motorists that distracted driving can result in tragic consequences, Kasten said.
"As we continue with our hectic pace of life," he said, "it is important to learn from the example of others and not necessarily our own experience."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun