Drivers Just Can't Help Themselves

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There are so many driving laws. In fact, driving is one of the most regulated activities most people do on a regular basis. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, most people regularly break at least some of those laws. Speed limits, for example, are laws nearly everybody breaks all the time.


Some of these laws make more sense than others. But most of us are in agreement that two driving-related safety laws are important and good: bans on driving while drunk and texting while driving. Yet, a great many people still do those things, killing tens of thousands of people a year.

First, there’s drunk driving, which is not a recent problem but a persistent one. A new Governors Highway Safety Association report highlighted NHTSA data that 10,511 people died last year in a crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver, which works out to one every 50 minutes on average, or 29 people each day.

Just as worryingly, the immense progress made under Mothers Against Drunk Driving and similar initiatives seems to have bottomed out. Here’s the data going back to 2005:

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Screenshot: NHTSA

As you can see from the chart, on both an absolute and per-mile rate, drunk driving fatalities have settled around the 10,000 per year mark, or a rate of .33 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, over the last decade.

At the same time, distracted driving, primarily by using one’s cell phone to text while driving, has become an increasingly dangerous problem. About 3,000 people a year die from distracted driving based on federal estimates.


But that may be an undercount. Bloomberg, in a report on distracted driving, says “safety experts believe the actual number is far higher.” (Distracted driving fatalities are not tracked as officially or closely, and indeed are more difficult to ascertain, as compared to drunk driving.) Using data from driver monitoring apps, Bloomberg found that distracted driving is also a persistent problem despite years of public awareness campaigns:

The data support the generally-accepted wisdom that despite laws, penalties and reminders of the hazards of cell phone distractions while behind the wheel, drivers continue to put themselves and others on America’s roads in grave danger.


That Bloomberg story has some great visualizations that I highly recommend checking out, but the upshot is roughly 30 percent of drivers are distracted at least some of the time, and a small minority of drivers are distracted about half the time they’re on the road. It’s especially bad in New York and Los Angeles. In New York, for example:

drivers called, texted or swiped through apps about 22% of the time they were on the road. Los Angeles fared slightly worse, mostly in the “non-call passive usage” category, which could include the use of apps for navigation and directions.


The thing is, everybody knows they’re not supposed to do these things, but they do them anyways. Bloomberg cites a safety advocacy group that claims 90 percent of voters “support stronger laws to crack down on smartphones at the wheel.”

This is a remarkable statistic because, when combined with Bloomberg’s findings, it means a sizable portion of the population want tougher laws to make what they’re doing on a regular basis even more illegal than it already is.


As for drunk driving, a AAA Foundation survey published this year, which is cited in the Governors Highway Safety Association report, found more than 95 percent of drivers know it is extremely dangerous to drive with a BAC above the legal limit. Yet, “11 percent of those same motorists admitted to engaging in this dangerous behavior in the past month.”

I don’t know what the answer here is, because clearly laws aren’t enough. A common refrain within the auto industry is “safety is our top priority” but that’s obviously not true. If it was, we’d have mandatory in-car breathalyzers as well as seatbelt interlocks and car companies would be devoting their top minds to minimizing distracted driving. That’s not what’s happening.


Instead, 10,000 people die a year because of a drunk driver, and several thousand more because someone couldn’t wait to fire off that incredibly mundane text that could have waited a few more minutes. We just can’t help ourselves, and people are increasingly calling on lawmakers to make them. But, as decades of anti-drunk driving campaigns and laws have made clear, that can only get us so far.



good thing this was filed to rant, because it doesn’t make a lot of coherent sense.

that being said, improved policing would improve road safety.

it always seems police steer toward the low hanging fruit (rolling through a stop sign at an empty intersection, going 66 in a 55) instead of actual dangerous drivers (weaving, not signaling, going to slow, etc).

we don’t need more laws, but we do need to more broadly enforce dangerous and wreckless driving