Distracted Driving: Why Smartphones Are So Dangerous to Cyclists
Nearly every driver is guilty of it: Answering a quick text, checking an email, answering a call, looking for a specific song on a playlist. Using a smartphone while driving, even while illegal in some instances, is a common occurrence for many drivers and poses a big risk to other road users.
Recent data shows that highway fatalities are once again trending upward. In 2022, vehicles were involved in more than 46,000 deaths across the U.S.– many of them, experts say, are due to distracted driving and, in particular, using a smartphone.
Countless others are injured each year because of distracted driving. Knowing exactly how many cyclists are harmed is difficult to determine due to significant underreporting.
“This is an epidemic,” Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview about the fatality numbers. “Everybody talks about fatalities, but there are hundreds of thousands or more life-altering injuries — broken limbs, brain injuries, horrible burns. This doesn’t have to happen. These crashes are not accidents. They are completely preventable.”
Of the more than 38,000 highway deaths the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tallied in 2020, about 3,100 were due to distracted driving. That equals about 10% of all deaths. Experts believe, however, the estimate might be grossly undercounted. The National Distracted Driving Coalition puts that percentage closer to 25%.
Landsberg, part of the National Distracted Driving Coalition, is dedicated to fixing the problems caused by smartphone usage in the car. The group has called on passengers to speak up about distracted driving and called on improving technology to reduce deaths in recent months.
What makes smartphones particularly dangerous for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians? One human factors expert points to the brain and how it’s multitasking.
“It all has to do with the amount of attentional and cognitive resources that we have available,” they say. “It’s something that I think people don’t necessarily realize, because they feel like, ‘I talk on the phone and drive at the same time all the time’…People get a false sense of security that it’s not as dangerous as it actually is.”
If a driver is in an unfamiliar area, at a busy intersection, watching for cyclists, and talking on the phone, their cognitive ability is being pulled in at least four different directions.
It’s a recipe for potential disaster, the human factors expert tells Bay Area Bicycle Law attorneys.
“It’s not enough to just look over your shoulder and see that there is a cyclist. You really have to look back a ways to be safe. Not to mention, you’re monitoring cars turning and pedestrians,” they say. “There are a lot of things that need to be monitored that make a situation highly attentionally demanding.”
Is talking on the phone really more dangerous than talking to a passenger in you car? Yes! A Human Factors expert, retained recently by our bicycle accident lawyers on a case, explains why this is.
Most cars are Bluetooth compatible, meaning that the driver doesn’t have to physically hold a device to engage in a phone call, but that doesn’t necessarily get rid of the distraction.
The person on the other side of the phone call doesn’t have any context about what’s happening on the road, the human factors expert explains. They can’t see the dangerous intersection or cyclists in the bike lanes. This is why chatting with a passenger, even if considered a distraction, is inherently safer than speaking on a hands-free phone call.
“Around 21% of the time, we’re not actually looking out the windshield at what’s in front of us. We’re looking in the rearview mirrors, or scanning around. Sometimes it’s fiddling with the radio or grabbing a drink of water,” they say. “The reason why we aren’t in crashes all the time is because we have a good sense for when it’s okay to look away.”
Passengers also have a good grasp on what’s happening in traffic and know when to pull back from a conversation.
“The passenger is going to be aware of the driving situation and might tend to back off if they see you in a challenging situation or if they can tell from your own presence and vibe that you need to concentrate,” the expert says.
Preventing cyclist injuries and deaths
While distracted driving comes in many forms, experts say one way to significantly cut down on them is to put the phone away while driving and focus on traffic.
“Our research has found that few people make use of their cellphone’s ‘Do Not Disturb While Driving’ feature, though it’s widely available and likely already integrated into the phone in your pocket,” says Ian Reagan of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “The Coalition held the inaugural Do Not Disturb While Driving Day on October 20, 2022, to raise awareness of this feature and encourage more people to enable it. This simple step could help prevent a crash and save lives.”
It’s critical for all users of the road that drivers cut down on distractions, which could ultimately prevent death and injuries. California law says that drivers cannot use a cell phone or similar electronic communication device while holding it in their hand. Drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using a cell phone while driving for any reason.
Dedicating as much attention to possible to the road, other users, and a fast-paced environment by putting the phone away completely could make a significant difference for cyclists and pedestrians.