woman looking at phone while driving (elwynn/Shutterstock.com)

What the data says about phone use while driving

Even though drivers know they shouldn’t look at their phones while driving, plenty do -- especially when they’re on a road that has a shoulder, a median, a higher speed limit and additional lanes.

Researchers at Texas A&M University found that not only does the frequency of phone use correlate to distracted crashes on urban and rural roads, but that there’s a direct link between road geometrics -- the presence or absence of a shoulder or extra lanes -- and more phone use while driving. 

The research is important because it opens up a new way to study drivers’ phone behavior and gives transportation agencies a way to identify physical countermeasures to reduce distracted-related crashes.

“While I am driving, I always notice many drivers who are on their phones talking, texting or scrolling. There are many times the cars in front of my car didn’t move after traffic lights turn green,” Xiaoqiang “Jack” Kong, a doctoral student at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute told A&M Engineering News. “This study finds patterns for where the locations are where phone use while driving behavior most occurs. These findings are unique and informative and have not been documented elsewhere yet.”

Researching phone use while driving involved collecting data and analyzing the driver’s personality, environmental factors and roadway operational factors.

The study found that the existence of a shoulder and median or merge lanes could encourage phone use behavior since these geometric features provide a safety buffer for drivers, which gives them a sense of security, A&M officials said.

Because individuals involved in distraction-enabled crashes are reluctant to admit using a phone while driving, Kong used a pseudonymized dataset from a private provider that pulled data from a smartphone application that tracks driving behavior.

The researchers integrated the phone-use-while-driving events from the private data provider with the roadway features of Texas roads and the distracted crash count on each road segment from the crash database of Texas to arrive at their conclusions. 

The study does have caveats.  The driving data may not represent older adults or others who do not use an app to track their driving. The researchers also would have liked to access data on the timing of intersection traffic signals.

“With more data, researchers may associate this phone use behavior with drivers’ social demographics. In this way, we may understand this behavior more at individual levels,” Kong said. 

Roadways that already experience higher numbers of distracted driving crashes should have more visible signs as well as more attention from law enforcement and transportation agencies, he suggested.

The findings of this study were published in Accident Analysis & Prevention

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