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That Text Message Could Be Your Last

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than eight people die every day in America in car crashes that involve a distracted driver. Texting behind the wheel is one of the most dangerous diversions, increasing the risk of an automobile crash eight to 23 times.

Drivers under 20 years old have the highest rate of distraction-related fatal crashes. Yet despite widespread awareness campaigns – and warnings by anxious parents and driver education course instructors – more than two out of five high school students admitted to sending a text or email while driving in the 30 days prior to being surveyed.

Just what is it we’re risking our lives for? What messages can’t wait until we pull over and park, or get out of the car? We surveyed more than 2,000 current drivers to try and understand their motivations. We also analyzed 21 final text messages to see what they said.

Here’s what we learned.

The Pressure to Text and Drive

Drivers Confess Why They Text Behind the Wheel

The vast majority of Americans know texting and driving is dangerous – but many do so anyway. Why are we doing something we know might cost us our lives?

More than half of drivers cited pressure to respond quickly to incoming texts from family, friends, and work as a reason for texting and driving. About a quarter wanted to respond promptly to their significant other, friends, or family, while about 9 percent wanted to be responsive to work-related texts.

For many of us, even loved ones expect we be available 24/7, and they may even become concerned when we aren’t immediately responsive. This is why it’s important we set precedents – both at work and home – so those who love and work with us understand we don’t check texts while driving. There are even apps available to help drivers automatically indicate they are on the road. Some use GPS to detect when a car is moving quickly and will automatically disable the phone’s capabilities.

What Are We Talking About When We Text and Drive?

Analysis of Drivers' Most Recent Texts

When we asked drivers to tell us what they last texted while driving, the most common answers were: They were running late, needed an address, or were making promises to call or be home soon – all things that feel urgent at the time, but in reality, can be left unsaid or sent while safely parked at the curb.

When asked how important their last text message was, more than 74 percent said their messages were either “somewhat” or “not particularly” important. Finally, drivers of all ages stated recipients of their driving texts are usually family members.

Most Common Texts Sent Before a Fatal Car Crash

When we looked at phrases mentioned most in text messages that preceded a fatal car accident, the most common was “driving drunk.” “I’ll be dead” was next, followed by the heartbreaking “I love you.”

Approximately one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the United States are caused by alcohol-impaired driving. The added distraction of viewing and sending text messages clearly amplifies the risk of an accident that could severely harm the driver and other people. It goes without saying that drinking, driving and texting are a deadly cocktail that no driver should ever mix.

Commonly Texted Final Words

When we analyzed final text messages for words rather than phrases, “love” and “drunk” were still common themes – the latter likely a contributing factor in the accidents themselves. The act of driving was also mentioned frequently, with words like “highway,” “driving,” “patrol,” “driver,” “lost,” and “found” appearing often.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Parents Texting at the Wheel

In a culture that knows the dangers of texting and driving, it’s chilling that – according to another recent survey – 75 percent of people admitted to texting behind the wheel. Even scarier is the idea that people who text and drive might have passengers – including their children.

What percentage of parents text and drive? According to a 2012 survey, 59 percent of teens reported seeing their parents text and drive.

When we asked our drivers if they text and drive, more than 40 percent of men and women said “never.” Of parents who said they always text and drive, 25 percent of mothers were guilty compared with just under 10 percent of fathers.

Will We Stop?

We may know the dangers. We may even feel guilty about texting and driving. But is that enough to make us stop?

Nearly 12 percent of millennials said, at some point, they had vowed to stop texting and driving but were then unable to commit. However, nearly 27 percent actually stuck with their promise. When looking at Gen Xers, about 38 percent who said they had vowed to stop texting and driving were successful, and the same went for nearly 28 percent of Baby Boomers.

For those who made a vow but didn’t follow through, texting and driving usually resumed within a week of the promise.

Do We Feel Safe?

Finally, we asked survey respondents to tell us how safe they felt being passengers in a car with a driver who texted. Baby boomers were the most likely to feel “very unsafe,” with almost 63 percent reporting discomfort riding with a texting driver, while only 37 percent of millennials felt the same way.

Women were also more likely to feel “very unsafe” than men – maybe because, according to some studies, men take more dangerous risks than women do.

Actual Last Messages Before Fatal Crashes

Finally, if our survey responses still didn’t hit home, imagine if this: Your last words to a loved one and the world are simply, “K.” Sadly, many of the last messages sent before a fatal car crash were trivial or a foreshadow of a possible drunk driving incident. Think twice before glancing at your phone behind the wheel, even if you think it will just be for a second; a second is all it takes to compose a one-letter good-bye message.

Reducing Risk and Covering Yourself

The number of car accidents is on the rise, and texting while driving may very well be a part of the problem. How can we keep our families and ourselves safe? The obvious first step is to stop texting and driving immediately. When you need directions, pull off the road. If you have to answer your spouse’s text message, do it before leaving the parking lot.

Equally important is letting our friends and family members know that we don’t expect – or want – them to text and drive. It’s OK for them to wait 5, 10 or 30 minutes to text us back. We’d rather have them home safe.

Finally, because we can’t control other drivers on the road, it’s important to have insurance that covers our families and ourselves in case anything should happen.

Methodology

We collected 21 final texts from fatal accidents to analyze common themes. Additionally, we surveyed 2,060 Americans about their texting and driving habits.

NOTE: If you're a journalist interested in covering this project, we encourage you to use any of the graphics included above. We just ask that you attribute Auto Insurance Center fairly in your coverage and provide a link to this page so that your audience can learn more about our work. If you'd like to discuss this project, or any of our other research, reach out to us at [email protected].