Rhode Islanders have been rated among the most distracted drivers in the country, according to a new study described as the biggest ever on the issue.
Zendrive, a traffic analytics start-up, recently took on the issue of distracted driving by tapping into data from 3.1 drivers with smartphones across the country between December 2016 and February 2017.
What they discovered was that of 570 million trips that spanned 5.6 billion miles, drivers were using their cell phone on 88 percent of those trips. Some were on a voice call. Some were using various apps, like Facebook or FaceTime or Snapchat (Zendrive declined to call out the specific apps most frequently used). Some were using GPS data. But almost all of them were on their phones for an average of 3.5 minutes every hour. That may not sound like much, but consider in the course of just two seconds at 55 mph, a driver crosses the length of two basketball courts.
Rhode Island in particular is a dangerous place for motorists, it turns out. In ranking each state plus D.C. Rhode Island ranked 44th (with 51 being the most distracted and 1 being the least). The state designated to have the most distracted drivers was also in New England: Vermont.
The Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that 95 percent of Americans owned cell phones and 77 percent owned smartphones. That's up from 35 percent smartphone ownership in 2011. Although most of us today can't imagine our lives without them, we forget that just a few years ago, none of us even had them. And while they have revolutionized communication, they have also impacted transportation - in ways that aren't always positive.
Driving while texting, typing an email or using a smartphone app increases one's risk of a Rhode Island car accident by 20 times.
The rise of the smartphone alongside the rise of traffic fatalities in the U.S., which rose 19 percent from 2014 to 2016, is no mere coincidence. True, gas prices are lower and the economy has improved and more people are commuting to jobs and have money in their pockets. But it's also true in many ways that vehicles are getting safer. Technology has allowed marked improvements in passenger and driver safety, with features like electronic stability control, rear view cameras and sensors that alert drivers when a collision might be imminent. Roads are even improving (to some degree) as more communities are jumping aboard the "Complete Streets" bandwagon, which advocates for lower speed limits, more crosswalks and narrower roadways to accommodate a multitude of different road users.
Yes, drivers still speed and drink alcohol and unfortunately, an increasing number are under the influence of drugs behind the wheel. But these problems have always existed on some level.
The primary difference today is the prevalence of the smartphone. After nearly a decade of declining traffic deaths, we are seeing these dramatic increases. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported traffic deaths due to distracted driving are steadily rising, even as states like Rhode Island and others enact laws to help address the problem. However, safety advocates say many of these measures don't go far enough.
Rhode Island General Laws Chapter 31-22-30 prohibits texting while driving. Although this statute doesn't mention other potentially distracting uses of a phone besides texting, the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal recently upheld a magistrate's ruling regarding a driver who was using a GPS feature on the phone and was found to have violated the law. The Tribunal ruled a person need not be typing in order to be in violation of the statute, neither must he or she need be sending or receiving a text message in order to be in violation.