The people who sell you auto insurance want to be that little voice in your head the next time you’re driving and you think to reach for your cellphone.
The insurance industry is joining the growing chorus of legislators, government agencies and others on the dangers – and costs – of distracted driving. The proliferation of cellphones, dashboard infotainment screens and other distractions has contributed to an uptick in traffic accidents and deaths in recent years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and that means more payouts for insurers.
The Travelers Companies has launched a national campaign targeting distracted driving called Every Second Matters. It started Monday with a forum at N.C. State University.
“We’re here because traffic accidents have a cost,” said Michael Klein, an executive vice president at Travelers. “And we’re trying to find ways to prevent those accidents from happening in the first place.”
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For every dollar that auto insurers took in nationwide last year, they paid out about $1.07 including expenses, Klein said. He said data at Travelers shows that an increase in distracted driving is a growing factor in the claims it settles for crashes.
More than 1,440 people were killed in vehicle crashes in North Carolina last year, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. About one-fifth of those accidents involved a driver who was distracted, but the department notes that number is likely higher because it depends on drivers admitting they were using their phone or were otherwise distracted.
Joan Woodward, the executive vice president for public policy at Travelers, said distracted driving should be treated like drunk driving, which despite remaining a serious problem has become less acceptable over the years. The company released the results of a survey of 1,000 adults that found that nearly a quarter of them said they used cellphones or other electronic gadgets while driving, even as 78 percent said they agreed it was “very risky” behavior.
Other findings from the survey:
▪ People are far more likely to look at their cellphone while driving alone, than if someone else is in the car.
▪ Being lost was the most common reason that drivers said they looked at their cellphones, followed closely by “reading text” or other notifications.
▪ About 30 percent said they rarely or never speak up when riding with a driver who uses a cellphone.
Aubie Knight, the CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina, said the trade group supports a bill in the state legislature that would prohibit drivers from using a phone unless it’s a hands-free system or resting in a cradle. The Brian Garlock Act, named for a Charlotte teenager who was killed in a crash in 2008 while trying to use his cellphone while driving, has languished since it was first introduced in 2015.
Knight noted that while it has been illegal to text and drive in North Carolina since 2009, law enforcement officers say it’s difficult to enforce the ban while people are still allowed to hold their phones to talk on them.
But Jenny Burke of the National Safety Council, a private nonprofit organization, says studies show that hands-free phone calls are just as distracting as talking with a phone to your ear. And, Burke said, the array of in-dash screens that include maps, online music systems and even access to the internet have emerged as new sources of hands-free distractions.
The basic problem, Burke said, is multi-tasking by drivers. People feel compelled to be doing something else while they’re driving, whether it’s answering a text, eating lunch or putting on their make-up.
“You are not focusing on the road,” she said. “You are focusing on all these other things you’re trying to get done.”