Have We Turned the Corner on Distracted Driving?

We seem to finally be waking up to the dangers, and we're getting an assist from an emerging technology. 

driving while on phone

For a book project in 2013, I looked up trends in traffic fatalities in the U.S. and was startled by the progress. In the quarter-century since 1988, fatalities had fallen steadily from more than 47,000 in a year to less than 33,000 even as the U.S. population increased by a third. Fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled had fallen by more than half, from 2.32 to 1.1. 

We were doing something right. 

Then progress stalled... and then the trend reversed. By 2021, nearly 43,000 people died on U.S. roads, and the number was almost that high in 2022. 

Why? Mostly because of distracted driving--all those smartphones we'd been buying since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and were paying attention to rather than keeping our eyes and minds on the road. 

So I was delighted to see the recent report from Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which said distracted driving had declined 4.5% in 2023. CMT calculated that the improvement "helped prevent over 55,000 crashes, 31,000 injuries, 250 fatalities and close to $2.2 billion in economic damages in the U.S. in 2023."

Calling a turn in a trend is always tricky, but I've followed a lot of trends for a lot of years, and I'm ready to call this one. I think distracted driving will only decline from here, for two reasons. 

I'll explain. 

Insurers can take a lot of credit for one of my reasons: the publicity about distracted driving that has created such awareness and pushback for years now. 

Public pressure almost always builds slowly -- far too slowly, in this case -- but it has now built to the point that you have to be pretty young or pretty reckless not to have had the dangers of distracted driving beaten into your brain. Insurers are reinforcing the PR effort through telematics and usage-based insurance, which dings drivers for distractions and rewards them for improving driving habits. 

The surge in auto insurance rates in the past couple of years has also caught everybody's attention and made them look for ways to lower premiums. That surge relates primarily to supply chain issues that made cars, parts and labor far more expensive and to reckless driving habits that developed when the pandemic emptied roads. Still, sensitivity about rates reinforces awareness about the need to avoid accidents.

I've been watching for some time to see a weakening of the curse of distracted driving. Most of us have had a smartphone for 15 years now. The technology has matured, and so has our understanding of it and our use of it. 

Even if I'm right in calling the turn, we still have a long way to go. The CMT report estimates that 29% of all crashes are due to distraction, which would mean it caused 12,405 fatalities in 2021 (almost the same number that were due to impaired driving that year). 

But trends end. Trees don't grow to the sky. And I think we've passed the peak of distracted driving.

My other reason for optimism is a sort of "tweener" technology that is gaining momentum. It won't eliminate crashes as effectively as I believe driverless cars eventually will, but it can already do a lot to snap drivers to attention at moments of imminent danger, both for themselves and for others on the road. 

The technology is basically two cameras and a whole lot of AI. One camera looks at the road to watch for obstacles such as other cars, cyclists and pedestrians. The other looks at the driver to see if they're paying attention to the road or need to be alerted about what's ahead, about tailgating or excessive speeding, about drowsiness or about anything else. The AI surveys the situation and, when necessary, alerts the driver -- by voice if the driver is just being coached but by alarm if the driver needs to instantly size up what's happening in front of them. 

I've read about various flavors of this approach over the years, but the one I'm most familiar with is from Nauto, because I've known the founder, Stefan Heck, for a dozen years, reaching back to his days as a senior partner at McKinsey and then a professor at Stanford. I did an interview with Stefan for our Future of Risk series last November, which raised the prospect of reducing vehicle accidents by 60%, 

At the end of May, Pete Miller, the CEO of The Institutes, released a podcast he did with Stefan as part of Pete's Predict & Prevent series,  and I encourage you to listen or to read the transcript, which is full of enlightening and encouraging detail. For instance, Stefan says that, when you can actually see what's happening in the car, you learn that 70% of accidents are caused by distraction. He also says that just among his customers, which are mostly commercial fleets, Nauto's technology has prevented 30,000 accidents in the past 18 months; based on government statistics, preventing those accidents means that some 30 people are walking this Earth who otherwise would not be. 

Stefan says the camera looking at the road can give a distracted driver three to four seconds of warning before a collision would occur. It takes the driver maybe two-thirds of a second to focus on the problem, giving them two or three seconds to hit the brakes or swerve out of the way.

Driverless cars will react much faster and will be much more careful in the first place, avoiding many situations that require instant reaction... but they aren't here yet and won't be in meaningful numbers for many years yet. The technology still needs work, and the turnover of the U.S. car fleet typically takes some 15 years. 

Prompts for distracted drivers can do a lot of good in the meantime. 



P.S. I encourage you to not only check out Pete's podcast with Stefan but to use that link to sign up for the Predict & Prevent podcast. which explores how the industry can move beyond the traditional repair-and-replace model and perform the service that people really want: helping them never have that claim in the first place. The first season of the podcast was terrific, and the interview with Stefan launches the second.