Want Your Job to Scare You? Try Studying Distracted Driving

"I'm terrified when I walk," says one researcher. 

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Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com

Peter Tuckel, a sociology professor at Hunter College at the City University of New York, studies the habits of motorists. It is not a reassuring pastime.

“I’m terrified when I walk,” says Tuckel, who lives in a bucolic Connecticut suburb. “I’m wary when I see cars because I’m always thinking, the person is on a cell phone and not thinking of my presence as a pedestrian.”

Tuckel hasn’t done a formal investigation of distracted driving in his town specifically, but he knows the national figures. Next time you’re going about your business on a typical day in the United States, whether on foot, on a bike, or in a car, you can think about them too: at any random moment during daylight hours across the country, according to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, about 660,000 American drivers are using cell phones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel.

It is kind of terrifying, isn’t it?

Now Tuckel and William Milczarski, from Hunter’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, have finished a new study focusing on New York City drivers [PDF]. And it shows that motorists in the least car-oriented city in the country are no exception when it comes to their attachment to electronics. As a matter of fact, they’re worse than the average.

The survey was conducted under Tuckel and Milczarski’s supervision by Hunter College students at 52 different locations throughout New York City. Ten of the locations had been flagged as the most dangerous in the city by New York's transportation department, while the other 42 provided a representative sample. The students looked for a variety of distracting behaviors among drivers, as well as whether or not they were wearing seat belts.

What they found was not exactly reassuring. Of the 2,988 drivers they observed, 7.4 percent were talking on handheld cell phones or texting, both of which are against New York State law. Some 5.9 percent were using hands-free electronic devices such as Bluetooth headsets, which are legal in New York State but have been shown to “place a high cognitive burden” on drivers. Truck drivers were among the worst offenders.

“I think the findings are somewhat mixed,” says Tuckel, who conducted a study on distracted driving in New York in 2007 that was not directly comparable to this one, but that provides some context. “On the one hand, you still find a high proportion of drivers using handheld devices, somewhat above the national average,” which is about 5 percent. That is an improvement over the results of the previous study, which showed 12 percent of motorists using hands-free devices and 12 percent on handheld devices, but it still causes the researcher concern. “Cell phone use is still phenomenally high, it’s at dangerous levels,” says Tuckel. “That’s troubling, especially in a state that bans handheld devices.”

Tuckel was, however, impressed by the rate of compliance with the state’s seat belt law, which was nearly 90 percent (cab and limo drivers are not required to wear seat belts, and about 45 percent were not).

He also noted the low rate of smoking, which was recorded as a distraction; only 2.6 percent of the drivers were puffing away, compared to 5.7 percent in 2007. Tuckel hypothesizes that the decline in smoking while driving might be thanks to the broad attitudinal shift toward the habit, the product of a decades-long, multi-pronged effort to address a serious public health threat (especially in New York City). Even automakers don’t accommodate smokers the way they used to, with ashtrays and lighters as standard equipment. 

Tuckel says that a similar deep-rooted shift will have to take place if we want to reduce incidence of using distracting devices in any meaningful way. Ticket blitzes, like the ones being conducted by the NYPD over the past several weeks, can be helpful, but hardly decisive. And the integration of various communications devices into the structure of cars is actually taking things in the wrong direction, he says.

“My understanding of these phenomena is that you have to have enforcement, yes, but you have to internalize the message,” says Tuckel. “The thing that really drove down smoking is that it became a stigmatized form of behavior. We haven’t reached that threshold with distracted driving, where we’ve internalized the message, where it’s not condoned. We need more intrinsic disincentives.”

Top image: Syda Productions / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.