Road traffic has seen an increase post-pandemic due to a return to office life and social obligations, which has resulted in a rise in distracted driving, collisions and fatalities. Across North America, technology use and operating a vehicle while stressed or sleep deprived is becoming more commonplace, contributing to less safe roads and a need for better incentives and social stigmas for safer driving.
“Post pandemic driving habits are getting more dangerous,” said Joan Woodward, the president of the Travelers Institute and vice president of public policy of Travelers. “People are navigating their cars as if the streets were barren during lockdown, proving that unsafe driving habits are a hard cycle to break.”
During the 2023 edition of RIMS in Atlanta, Woodward spoke to Insurance Business about the key trends in distracted driving that insurers should be aware of, how vigilant behaviours can be incentivized and the need for stronger public scrutiny and education to strengthen road safety.
Throughout Canada and the United States, being distracted while operating a vehicle is gaining in frequency. According to the 2023 Travelers Risk Index, nationwide surveys conducted by The Travelers outlining distracted driving behaviour, 30% of Canadian participants admitted that they have been involved in an accident due to their own distractions, a 50% increase from 2022.
Meanwhile, 70% of American respondents believe distracted driving is more of a problem now than it was in years past, a figure supported by a National Safety Council study that found deaths due to preventable traffic crashes in 2022 increased by 18% compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Technology use is a formidable culprit for shifting a driver’s attention off the road, whether it is operating a handheld device for texting, emailing, picture taking, online shopping or posting social media updates. Fumbling with a GPS or becoming immersed in a phone call that is operated through a hands-free device are also proving to be noteworthy diversions with dangerous implications.
Alongside technological preoccupations, stress and emotional strain are also affecting how drivers are manoeuvring their vehicles. One in six Canadians said they often cry or experience intense emotions while driving, with people ages 18-35 21% more likely to report these feelings. Additionally, 62% of American respondents have admitted to driving while drowsy or while sleep deprived.
“Recent studies have shown that driving on a few hours of sleep can have a similar cognitive impact to that of operating a vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol, and that’s a troubling revelation,” Woodward said.
Additionally, work-related distractions are also proving to be detrimental for safer driving tendencies. 44% of American surveyed said they responded to work emergencies while on the road, while another 43% felt they need to always be available to respond to professional obligations.
Meanwhile, for Canadians, only 17% of individuals reported having official work policies prohibiting responding to work-related calls, texts or emails while commuting.
“Employers must have stricter protocols around these types of distractions and clearly parlay that information to managers so that workers in all levels of a company can understand the importance of these safety efforts,” Woodward said.
“Similar to how businesses may have phishing tests to discern whether or not an employee may pose a cyber threat to its operations, we need to ensure that we test our coworkers every now and then about distracted driving in the normal course of training programs.”
As a public policy division of Travelers, the Travelers Institute aims to help inform public policymakers and regulators to address pressing concerns, including distracted driving.
“At a policy level, distracted driving is inherently a bipartisan issue and should be treated as such,” Woodward said.
However, according to the survey, there is a greater demand from drivers to be rewarded for safer driving habits.
Eighty three percent said they were interested in a financial reward while 82% were in favor of an auto insurance discount.
For Canadian and American respondents alike, having a passenger request that a driver not use their phone had between an 84%-90% chance of deterring distraction.
“We need to incentivize safer driving in a more meaningful way,” Woodward said. “We have to take into account these numbers and find proactive solutions.”
Utilizing technological devices that track driving patterns could provide motivation for creating better habits.
“Travelers’ IntelliDrive app is just one method of rewarding drivers who feel that their vigilance should be recognized,” Woodward said. “Once people see they can get a better rate because of changing their behaviours, we can save more lives.”
Which, at the end of the day, while road safety can come with financial benefits, avoiding death or critical injuries should be top of mind for any driver.
In public discourse, impaired driving is overwhelmingly frowned upon and there have been countless campaigns to help remediate this unsafe behaviour.
“It’s a no-brainer now that drinking or consuming drugs and driving is shameful, and while instances like this still occur, there is more widespread condemnation towards it,” Woodward said.
“However, we need to include distracted driving into that discussion. You should never feel ashamed to correct a driver if they are using their phone or express concern if they are overworked and sleep deprived.”
As a result, the Travelers Institute has created a Distracted Driving Initiative which provides educational resources to implement better road safety.
“We have visited schools to speak to the younger generation to help them establish safer driving habits in the beginning,” Woodward said. “We also hold presentations to employers with risk managers’ expertise to make sure their employees are not taking their work on the road.”
“We understand everyone experiences varying degrees of distraction or stress that can impact how they operate a vehicle, and the more we raise awareness about how it can affect road safety and stigmatize unsafe driving habits, the better off society will be.”