By Autumn Cafiero Giusti
A 29-year-old driver in Maine made headlines in August after crashing his car into a tree while attempting to take a selfie with his friends, injuring several of them.
The car was full of passengers, all in their 20s and 30s. Two of the seven passengers’ injuries were serious, and police issued a distracted driving summons to the driver.
The accident is the latest story to draw attention to a disturbing trend on the roadways: Not only are people texting while driving, but they’re also taking their eyes off the road long enough to pose for and snap selfies.
Statistics support the growth of this trend. As of late September, there were 22,067 Instagram posts under #drivingselfie. That’s nearly six times as many as there was when CNN reported on the hashtag two years earlier.
In an AT&T survey from May, close to 1 in 5 respondents (17%) admitted to taking selfies or other photos while driving. And 7 in 10 people confessed to engaging in smartphone activities behind the wheel.
“It’s a sad fact that drivers want to be doing anything but driving,” says Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Administration, a nonprofit that represents the state highway offices that implement programs to address behavioral highway safety issues. “There’s no way you can operate a vehicle and take a selfie at the same time. It’s impossible to do.”
When it comes to accident liability, drivers can get in hot water if they are caught taking selfies – or using their phones for any other reason, for that matter – at the time of a crash, says Peter Crosa, president-elect of the National Association of Independent Insurance Adjusters.
Even though drivers involved in accidents aren’t always forthcoming about their cell phone use, they can find themselves in serious jeopardy in terms of liability if it’s later determined that they were in fact using their phones, Crosa says.
“When we interview people who were in accidents, nobody admits they were using a cell phone or taking a selfie,” Crosa says. “But when a case is serious and involves injury or fatality, we do subpoena records of the driver involved. And frequently, we do find that they were on the phone.”
Taking pictures behind the wheel is a big problem, but it’s not the only problem. “This would be part of the broader issue of ‘distracted driving,’ which is gaining wider attention in the insurance industry,” says Dr. Robert Hoyt, Dudley L. Moore Jr. Chair of Insurance at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.
Cell phones are a high-profile distraction, but activities like putting on make-up, eating, setting the navigation system and changing songs and stations can be dangerously distracting, too, says Tom Pecoraro, president and founder of iDriveSmart, a chain of drivers education schools taught entirely by active, retired and former police officers.
“There are probably just as many other things that occur inside the passenger compartment that are just as deadly or contribute to serious wrecks. I’ve seen it as a police officer,” Pecoraro says.
Crosa says he’s always amazed to see the number of people who have a cell phone in their hands while they’re driving. “In my personal observation, I would say it’s close to 50%,” he says.
Distracted driving appears to be a factor in rising claim costs, Hoyt says. However, most of the correlation is among younger drivers, ages 16 to 22.
“Although research is ongoing, it appears that the problem has to do with new, inexperienced drivers being involved with anything that interacts with their lack of skill in operating a motor vehicle,” Hoyt says.
In a 2012 teen driving survey by Liberty Mutual Insurance Group and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), 78% of teens responding admitted to texting while driving, and 90% admitted to talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel.
Distracted driving is one of the primary reasons why states have been adopting Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL) laws that limit the number of occupants and hours on the road for new drivers. “When you are behind the wheel, your focus should be on driving. But this is even more important if you are a new driver,” Hoyt says.
Young drivers in particular are overrepresented in crashes. Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 killer of American teens, according to the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety. On average, approximately seven teens were killed in the U.S. each day of 2013 as a result of motor vehicle crashes, according to the AHAS. Crashes involving drivers ages 15 to 20 killed 4,333 people that year. “It’s a particularly high-risk age of drivers,” says Jackie Gillan, president of the AHAS.
Teen drivers are far more likely to be involved in fatal crashes because they lack driving experience and tend to take greater risks, according to the AHAS. For that reason, the organization has been lobbying states to help them pass stricter Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) laws. GDL programs introduce teens to driving gradually by phasing in full driving privileges over time and in lower risk settings. Many GDL laws include a three-stage licensing process and restrictions on nighttime driving, number and age of passengers and cell phone use.
States that have adopted GDL programs have experienced overall crash reductions among teen drivers of about 10% to 30%, according to the AHAS.
“We want cell phone use banned – whether you’re texting, talking or searching the Internet, and on top of that using this device to take pictures of you and your friends while you’re steering this 4,000-pound vehicle going 65 mph and taking your eyes off the road,” Gillan says.
Adults can be a large part of the problem, too, though. In these cases, children can sometimes be the most effective messengers for getting them to change their behaviors. Much like the “buckle up” campaigns that have raised awareness among children about seatbelt use, educating young passengers about the dangers of things like texting or selfies while driving can be a highly effective way to reduce the problem, Macek says. “They can impress upon their parents by saying, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m not comfortable with you doing that,’” she says.
Education and messaging are a start, Gillan says, but ultimately enacting and enforcing laws are what makes people comply with those messages. “There’s nothing more educational than a ticket to make you do what you should do,” she says.
Gillan recalls a lesson her own daughter learned as a teenage driver. The curfew where their family lived was 11 p.m., and Gillen’s daughter got pulled over one night for still being out at 11:15.
“That was a really educational experience for her,” she says. “Let’s just say we didn’t have that argument after that.”