Auto insurers: Distracted driving plays big factor in 2015-16 surge in traffic fatalities

Posted at 10:42 AM, Nov 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-16 19:10:45-05

WASHINGTON (AP) -- If you use smartphone apps like Pokemon Go or YouTube to while away the minutes as you sit in rush-hour traffic (or as you whiz along at 65 mph), you're not alone.

Unfortunately, auto insurance officials are guessing smartphones and distracted driving are to blame for the sharp rise in traffic fatalities in 2015 and 2016, representing the largest annual percentage increase in 50 years.

The Transportation Department announced in late October that deaths spiked 10.4 percent in the first six months of this year. That followed a 7.2 percent increase in 2015 after years of declining deaths.

Robert Gordon, senior vice president for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, told a safety forum that the increase isn't spread evenly across the country. He said insurers are seeing bigger increases in the frequency of auto collisions in urban areas where traffic congestion is getting worse, and declines in area where congestion is less of a problem.

For example, the frequency of collisions dropped 11.3 percent in Alaska from 2014 to 2016, but rose 14 percent in the District of Columbia and 5.9 percent in neighboring Maryland. Other states with big increases in collisions include Florida, 9.1 percent; Georgia, 9.4; South Carolina, 7.9 percent; Mississippi, 6.7; Texas, 5.7; Nevada, 9.7; Oregon, 6.1, and Washington, 6.2.

States with declines included Minnesota, 10.7 percent; North Dakota, 9.7 percent; Michigan, 9.3; Vermont, 7; Wisconsin, 6.5; Maine, 5.4; New Hampshire, 4.8; Iowa, 4.7; and West Virginia, 4.2.

The analysis relied on insurance data on collisions and Federal Highway Administration data on congestion, Gordon said.

A recent study of a half-million driver trips also found that when traffic slows due to congestion, many drivers pick up their smartphones to text or use apps, he said. The study by True Motion, a company that sells anti-distracted driving technology to insurers, found that the top 10 apps used by drivers are, in order, Google Maps, Pokemon Go, Android Messaging, Facebook, YouTube, Waze, Amazon Music, Google Chrome, Pandora and NetFlix.

"You look at urban areas where the traffic slows way down and the first thing that half the drivers do, or more than half, is pull out their iPhones and their iPads," Gordon said. "You start talking to your friends, you check your email, maybe you send a text and that's a huge problem."

There are other factors that drive up collision rates. People are driving more miles than ever before as the economy has improved and gas prices have dropped, for example. But those are national trends that don't explain the local differences, he said.

"Our auto insurance companies feel the biggest cause of the increasing accident frequency is this type of distracted driving," Gordon said.

Severe weather events that are unusual for a particular region are also linked to increased collisions, he said.

"An ice storm in North Dakota isn't going to move the needle a lot, but when we had an ice storm in D.C. a few years ago, boy, did that move the needle a lot," he said.

Demographics are also a factor. Areas with larger shares of older or younger drivers also have a higher frequency of collisions, he said. Growing marijuana use, especially when combined with prescription or other drugs, may also be a factor, he said.

Gordon spoke at a forum hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Safety Council to discuss ways to eliminate traffic fatalities.

With Thanksgiving coming up, safety is on drivers' minds, according to Cheryl Parker with AAA.

"We're expecting the busiest Thanksgiving holiday in nine years," Parker said. "The roads will be busy. You own it to yourself, your passengers and other motorists to be extra careful and focused on the road."