What’s Behind Bad Driving Behaviors?

We’ve all been there. We are driving along, minding our own business, when we spot someone texting on their phone, whizzing past us at a high rate of speed or swerving from side to side. Most of us recognize these behaviors as unsafe and threats to our safety.

Risky driving behaviors – “Do as I say, not as I do”

In fact, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds most drivers view typing into a mobile device while driving (96.2%), drinking and driving (94%) and speeding on the freeway (55.1%) as dangerous behaviors. Yet, the AAA Foundation also finds many of these same drivers admit to engaging in these behaviors behind the wheel in the past 30 days.

Even more startling, drivers who have been in at least one crash during the past two years are significantly more likely to engage in these risky behaviors, indicating drivers are not altering their behavior, even when it’s resulted in a crash.

This “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality is nothing new. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has been tracking this attitude in its annual Traffic Safety Culture Index for years. The question is, why? Why do we engage in risky behaviors, like using a mobile phone while driving, when we know they are dangerous?

“The ‘why’ is what I care a lot about,” said Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, research assistant professor at The Ohio State University Department of Psychology. Shoots-Reinhard is no stranger to the impact of car crashes. Three out of the 80 students in her high school graduating class have died in crashes.

“It should not be the case that every person knows somebody that’s died in a car crash,” said Shoots-Reinhard. “From the data that we have from NHTSA and other sources, about 95% of those crashes are preventable.”

Shoots-Reinhard has a Ph.D. in psychology from The Ohio State University with a specialization in social psychology. Her graduate studies focused on decision making and attitudes over persuasion. She also has completed research on communication, especially numeric risk communication and decision making. Based on her experience, Shoots-Reinhard provides insight into what’s behind driver behavior, particularly distracted driving.

“There’s not one reason why people drive distracted when they know they really shouldn’t,” said Shoots-Reinhard. “One of the key drivers of this hypocrisy is that people think of other people when considering support for stricter laws or rating how dangerous behaviors are and that other people are unsafe when they’re distracted.”

It’s always the other driver we need to look out for, right? That’s what many of us heard when we were learning to drive. Perhaps that’s one lesson that stuck.

Shoots-Reinhard cites other psychological predictors that may lead people to drive distracted, including the beliefs that:

“It’s not that risky.”
“The risks are overblown; messaging is manipulative.”
“I’m better at using my phone and driving than others.”
“I need my phone.”
“Other people are doing it.”

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds young adult drivers, ages 19-39, are the most likely to use a mobile phone to talk or text while driving. Shoots-Reinhard agrees. “Younger drivers are the most distracted, because they also see cellphone use as less risky, more beneficial, and they are more resistant to anti-distraction messaging,” she said.

In addition, children who grow up watching their parents drive distracted are more likely to drive distracted once they get behind the wheel.

“Young drivers are sensitive to hypocrisy and drive how their parents drive, not as they say,” said Shoots-Reinhard.

So how do we stop this vicious cycle and reduce crashes? That’s the question traffic safety experts continue to grapple with throughout the country and here in Ohio.

To address this issue, federal law requires all states to develop a Strategic Highway Safety Plan. Ohio’s plan uses a data-driven, multi-agency approach to reduce traffic fatalities and severe injuries on Ohio’s roads. The plan is spearheaded by the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Program, which invests in preventing or reducing the severity of crashes across the state.

“While the bulk of our funding is used to build safer roads, we are increasingly working with partners like AAA to build safer driving habits,” said Michelle May, Highway Safety Program manager at ODOT. “Getting more drivers to buckle up and put the phone down – every trip, every time – has enormous potential to help us eliminate serious injuries and deaths in our state.”

But, getting drivers to change driving behaviors isn’t always that simple.

“We see over and over and over again with all sorts of public health issues, there’s never just one magic bullet,” said Shoots-Reinhard. “It has to be a change in culture. Norms have to change; enforcement has to be increased. There also has to be an education component. It really has to be everything working in concert.”

That includes messaging, technology, legislation, enforcement and even infrastructure.

“Research being conducted by The Ohio State University and other institutions show that infrastructure can influence a driver’s behavior or comfort with engaging in cell phone distractions,” said May. “We’re interested in exploring that in the future to see how roundabouts and other designs can be used to influence smart choices.”

Some drivers may think they’re making good choices by using their cell phones hands-free instead of hand-held, but traffic safety advocates say not so fast.

“It just seems so intuitive that talking hands-free should be safer, but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that it’s not safe,” said Shoots-Reinhard.

That’s because drivers are still mentally distracted, causing them to miss items right in front of them.

The data does not lie. Even with technological advances in hands-free infotainment systems and safer vehicles, ODOT reports increased traffic deaths on Ohio’s roads during the past five years.

“This rise correlates with the rise in cell and smartphone ownership,” said May. “More people have smartphones, and they’re increasingly using them
while driving.”

The best advice; “Focus on driving,” said Shoots-Reinhard.

And remember, always look out for those other drivers.

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