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Distracted Driving Research Suggests a Surprising Problem

Survey results from a recent AAA poll found that 90 percent of drivers believe that distracted driving is on the rise—and they're not wrong. The 2017 Traffic Safety Index surveyed drivers and got nearly the exact same figure: 88 percent of their respondents said they fear distracted drivers more than drivers who were aggressive or drunk.

The same survey found that at least 45 percent of drivers admitted to texting while driving, and 35 percent admitted to writing or sending an email while on the road. Assuming that some people didn't admit to texting and driving, that's nearly half of all drivers who do the very thing they're afraid everyone else is doing!

AAA research suggest that distraction is the root cause (or a major cause) of more than half of all accidents. As phones become more and more a handheld repository for our brains (and with driverless cars still a few years away), our roads are facing a point of critical mass.

Will people be able to put down their phones during the commute? Is it even reasonable to expect that will happen on its own? Will phone makers need to create accelerometers that prevent operation while driving?

The Paradox of Driving While Texting

Ultimately, what we're looking at is a phenomenon of society-wide hypocrisy. Nearly half of the people who fear distracted drivers admit that they themselves are distracted drivers! Has every driver on the road decided that they are the exception to the rule?

Psychologists identified a new kind of cognitive delusion called the Dunning-Kruger effect in 1999, and it may explain why people can fear distracted drivers and allow themselves to be distracted at the same time. Dunning-Kruger is a phenomenon where the lower someone's cognitive ability is, the higher they believe it to be. Essentially, people who are not very alert don't have the alertness to be aware of that fact!

Taken to the road, the Dunning-Kruger effect results in a generation of drivers who believe that they're good enough at multitasking to drive and write an email or send a quick text...but the people who are most likely to believe that are the most likely to get someone hurt.

But now the scale of the problem becomes clear: how do you convince hundreds of thousands of drivers to act against their own cognitive bias? If there was a way to "fix" faulty thinking, surely it would have happened by now!

Whatever the solution, distracted drivers need to be held accountable for their recklessness.