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Databyte: The Divide in Distracted Driving

By Joshua Brooks

Published May 21, 2013

What does it say that 69 percent of drivers in the United States admitted to talking on their cell phones while they were behind the wheel, compared to only 21 percent in the United Kingdom? Or that 31 percent of U.S. drivers reported reading or sending texts compared to 15 percent in Spain? The numbers provide clues, if not definitive answers, that explain the differences between the United States and Europe.

Each day in the United States, nine people are killed and 1,060 people are injured in auto accidents that involve a distracted driver. Between 2010 and 2011, the number injured and killed in the United States as a result of distracted driving rose from 3,267 to 3,331.

The data on distracted driving deaths and injuries is not as easy to find in other countries. But available data from 2009 shows 454 deaths and injuries due to distracted driving in the United Kingdom. That means 1 death or injury due to distracted driving per every 100,000 people in the United States versus 0.72 deaths per 100,000 across the pond (or 1 per 138,888 people).

Though many factors may contribute to the differences, tighter regulations and different perceptions of driver responsibility may play a role. Many European countries require longer, more rigorous driver’s ed programs that start when teens are older than do most U.S. states.

In Switzerland, for example, applicants must be 18 years old; attend first-aid courses; have their eyes checked by a doctor; and pass a theoretical exam to get a two-year learner’s permit. Even then, permit holders can only drive when they’re riding with an adult 23 or older who’s driven at least three years. After that, candidates must attend 10 hours of theoretical lessons that, though not legally required, are considered necessary to pass a practical exam. If they pass, drivers are given a probationary license that lasts for three years, during which they cannot commit a serious traffic infraction or their license will be revoked. They must also attend follow-up training for two days.

Image by Tonky

But more than anything, the differences in distracted driving could be a reflection of infrastructure. Unlike many European countries, the United States is large and has a strong driving culture and dependency on cars. But even in its guidelines for countermeasures to decrease unsafe driving, E.U. policy suggests that approaches other than strict licensing and enforcement  could help decrease risky driving among youngsters, who are especially at risk for distracted driving. The guidelines recommend discounting public transportation for younger drivers and city planning that puts clubs and social meeting points along train and bus lines to cut down on driving.

While some major U.S. cities have public transit systems that reduce motor vehicle use, national transit infrastructure in the United States is far behind that of European countries like the United Kingdom, France, Germany and others, which allow greater access to travel without using a car. The numbers reflect this difference: the number of cars in the United States and the European continent is roughly the same – about 250 million. But vehicles in Europe average 14,000 km per year versus 19,100 km a year in the United States.

Whatever the reasons behind these differences, it’s pedestrians and bicyclists who are disadvantaged on the roads – possibly because of talking and texting motorists. In the United States, 677 bicyclist and 4,432 pedestrian fatalities occurred in 2011. In New York alone, a global city that should be a leader in infrastructure approaches to increase driver and pedestrian safety, the fatality rate is twice that of peer cities such as Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki. Not all were related to distracted driving, but given the recent CDC study comparing the United States and Europe, it likely plays a role.

The dramatic differences in pedestrian and motorist safety between the United States and Europe point to public transit systems, licensing and culture as possible areas where new American policies might safeguard the health of the country’s population. But, it seems we continue to lose sight of what’s in front of us.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.