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Cell phone use up 57 percent among Va. drivers

RUCKERSVILLE—Phones can be more than a major distraction on the roadways when people die from using them.

New Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) research found that manipulating a cell phone while driving was a contributing factor in more than 800 deaths on U.S. roads during 2017.

Virginia drivers observed during a 2018 IIHS roadside survey were 57 percent more likely to be manipulating a cell phone compared to drivers in a 2014 survey. The percentage of drivers observed handling a phone rose from 2.3 percent in 2014 to 3.4 percent in 2018.

At the same time, drivers were less likely to be seen holding a cell phone or talking on a hand-held phone than in the prior survey. This finding is consistent with research that discovered drivers are talking on hand-held phones less, but fiddling with them more.

“The latest data suggest that drivers are using their phones in riskier ways,” said David Kidd, who co-authored the study and is a senior research scientist with the Highway Loss Data Institute. “The observed shift in phone use is concerning, because studies consistently link manipulating a cell phone while driving to increased crash risk.”

Other distracting behaviors behind the wheel include using an in-vehicle system such as the radio or climate control, talking or singing, smoking, grooming and eating or drinking.

“When people talk about distracted driving, most often cell phones are the focus, but drivers are distracted by other secondary behaviors more often than cell phones,” Kidd explained. “Things as simple as drinking coffee or talking to your kids can take your attention away from the road.”

The percentage of crash deaths related to distraction in recent years has hovered at about 8 to 10 percent of all crash deaths, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Our insurance industry is feeling the effects of this epidemic as we continue to see claims increase as a result of distracted driving,” noted Darlene Wells, executive vice president and general manager of Virginia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. — a member of IIHS.

Two bills recently passed Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate concerning driving hands-free. The bills must now make it through the opposite chambers and then must be signed into law by the governor.

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