Cars & traffic

May 6, 2013

Is ‘device distraction’ a major cause of serious road casualties?

Smartphones and electronic devices are often cited as a major cause of car crashes. But is that a media invention? Does it distract attention from more important causes of road casualties?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

[caption id="attachment_26940" align="aligncenter" width="560" caption=""The lastest mod-cons are distracting to drivers" says The Age in this front-page story. Source: The Age"][/caption] Like everything else, technology is a mixed blessing. All that wonderful connectedness and access to information provided by smartphones and screens appears to have its dark sides. According to a report on the weekend in the Fairfax press, new research shows in-vehicle technology can be very, very bad for your health. The Sydney Morning Herald headed the story, Driver distraction responsible for more car crashes than alcohol. The Age splashed the story over five columns on the front page under the heading, Motorists driven to distraction by their own devices, and accompanied it with the picture above. Here’s the headline and the opening paras from Saturday's The Age:
Motorists driven to distraction by their own devices More than 1000 people are predicted to die or be seriously injured on Victorian roads in the next five years due to driver distraction from in-vehicle technology such as car stereos, GPS devices or gadgets such as mobile phones. The economic cost of these predicted collisions has been calculated at $1.285 billion, in a major study of driver distraction by the Monash University Accident Research Centre and Monash Injury Research Institute.
So it looks like using smartphones and electronic devices is a serious problem for safe driving. But hang on a bit, there's more to the story.  

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  If you read further into the article you find out mobile phones are the cause of just 1% of serious casualty crashes (see second exhibit). [caption id="attachment_26953" align="alignright" width="301" caption="Source: The Age"][/caption] In fact device-related causes (the last four categories) collectively only account for 3.6% of these crashes. In contrast, intoxication and tiredness collectively account for 36.2% of them! It’s true The Age provides enough information to get a handle on what’s really going on here if the reader continues with the rest of the article. Nevertheless I’m disappointed the paper would run with that headline and those opening paras given that “device-related” crashes appear to be a relatively small cause of serious casualties. There seems to be a disconnect between the “angle” and the facts being reported. The front-page splash focussed on devices appears to be at odds with what's really at issue here. I wonder how many readers skim the headline, the image and the opening para and go away thinking devices are the main or at least a very important cause of serious crashes? I wonder if the way the story is presented “primes” how those who read further into the story will interpret it? It’s not that The Age is wrong. It’s just that it's emphasised the smaller of the causes (its readers would of course be a ‘device-intensive’ demographic) rather than what are apparently far more important causes. I must acknowledge though that I haven’t seen the source document on which The Age based its story. I can't therefore comment on the accuracy of The Age's report or discount the possibility the reporter's seen something I haven't. Nor can I comment on the methodology used by the researchers. I haven't seen the source because it’s gated. The Age says it's a paper published in the May 2013 issue of the Elsevier journal, Accident analysis & prevention. It appears under the names of the researchers who presumably did the work. I think it’s regrettable that publicly-funded institutions eagerly put out press releases about research of public interest but can’t be bothered making it easily available to the public, as I’ve discussed before. In this case, neither the Monash Accident Research Centre nor the Monash Injury Research Institute provide access to the journal paper via their web sites or, more importantly, the in-depth report on which it’s presumably based. The Age says VicRoads was the client for the study, but the latter doesn’t list the report either.  Indeed, I couldn’t find any mention of the report/paper on any of the sites, notwithstanding it was reported in Saturday’s papers. Judging by how out-of-date these sites are in terms of their publishing histories, reporting to the public doesn’t seem to be a high priority. At least Elsevier provides access to the abstract of the article. We can tell from it that the study started with a sample of 856 crashes over the period 2000-2011 taken from the Australian National Crash In-depth Study. Most of these couldn’t be coded for one reason or another, so the study was left with 340 crashes. Of these crashes, 57.6% showed evidence of “driver inattention”. (fn 1) The abstract doesn't make a big thing of device-related inattention. The only specific causes it mentions are intoxication and fatigue:
The most common subtypes of inattention were restricted attention, primarily due to intoxication and/or fatigue, and diverted attention or distraction. The most common types of distraction involved voluntary, non-driving related distractions originating within the vehicle, such as passenger interactions. The current study indicates that a majority of serious injury crashes involve driver inattention.
The abstract concludes by saying that “most forms of inattention and distraction observed are preventable.” That’s an important message as it suggests there’s scope to reduce the level of fatalities and serious injuries. If the 3.6% of serious crashes caused by ‘device distraction’ translate to more than 1,000 serious casualties over the next five years as The Age implies, then it’s important to address that cause. However the 36.2% caused by intoxication and tiredness – which presumably translate to many more serious casualties – should surely be given more attention by the media and policy-makers. __________________________________________________ (fn 1) Hence the figures shown above in the second exhibit appear to be a percentages of all crashes, not just those that involve inattention. They don't add to 100%, which I take to mean that the other 44% are attributable to non-distracting causes, like speed.

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4 thoughts on “Is ‘device distraction’ a major cause of serious road casualties?

  1. Dudley Horscroft

    Definitely a bit off, but what do you expect of the “Age”. Not mentioned in your article, but possibly in the original, is whether the ‘crashes’ were single vehicle or multiple vehicle, even if some were with bikes, or some were crashing into pedestrians.

    I get emails from the USA, many referring to people who walked along the railway track and were hit by a train. Some crossed over the tracks (or didn’t make it) but often gave no indication of hearing a train, even when whistled at! Conclusion, they were wearing iPods, Walkmans or other devices, such that their attention was completely taken up by that and they could not hear anything else. I call it “Suicide by iPod.”

  2. Alan Davies

    PaoloConte #2:

    “A bit misleading”! “Slightly at odds”!

    I agree that ‘device distraction’ is a serious issue and needs to be addressed, and said so. But really, pitching a front page story (did you see Saturday’s paper? This story took up damn near half the front page!) on the strength of 3.6% of crashes is hardly “a bit misleading”.

    How would you feel if The Age starts running stories like this on an issue where you happen to disagree with the minority issue they’ve selected to frame the entire story? Expecting the media to behave professionally and responsibly is surely not a lot to ask (The Age’s performance on this story is quite a contrast with the industry’s self-image, as laudable as the sentiments in this piece by Kate McClymont are).

  3. PaoloConte

    Alan, I am slightly disappointed by your disappointment. Granted, the SMH headline was a bit misleading, but the Age’s – Motorists driven to distraction by their own devices” – is hardly mis-stating the facts. I take your point that the emphasis given is slightly at odds with the data presented in the story, but really, this is splitting hairs – the evidence is there to see every day on the road of the increasingly pernicious influence of electronic devices. They are being used in great numbers, they are being used in ever-increasing numbers by new generations of drivers who grew up with social media and seem to be incapable of imagining life without it for short stretches of driving time, and they are clearly responsible for reduced driver awareness.

    Disclaimer: I ride a bike. This gives one a unique ability to see into a far greater number of cars than if one is driving a car oneself. It also gives one the unique ability to be squashed to a bloody pulp by a driver who isn’t looking where they are going and has no idea of the road conditions around them. It is not an exaggeration to say that every single commute I see multiple mobile phone users, texting, talking, checking out their ipad, faffing around with their ipod, while they are driving. It is normally quite obvious which drivers these are as one approaches from behind: they are going 15 kph slower than the surrounding traffic, they are weaving all over the lane, they are holding up traffic for 10 seconds before they realise that the light has changed and thus contributing to congestion, they clearly have no clue as to what is going on around them. They are selfish morons. It is frankly frightening that there are so many people on public roads who view their car as an extension of their personal entertainment space and don’t treat driving with the care and seriousness that it requires.

    I acknowledge that everything I say is observational and subjective and not any basis for policy-making, but it is a massive generational change that we are witnessing (although of course not confined to the young, lest anyone think that I am simply having a go at the yoof). It is a societal change, that large numbers of people have rewired their brains so that they think that is perfectly normal and reasonable to be playing with devices and driving at the same time. It’s a serious problem and I don’t begrudge The Age & the SMH for highlighting it. Yes ,they have emphasised a smaller cause of serious crashes, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that devices are still a serious issue which need to be addressed somehow.

  4. Strewth

    It appears the data collection was mainly through interviews with vehicle occupants after crashes, so there’s a self-reporting aspect to this exercise which throws some of the conclusions into doubt. In particular all those ‘failed to look’ and ‘failed to see’ cases need more scrutiny, I think.

    Somehow I suspect that with unrestricted mobile phone use in cars being illegal, people are going to be more reluctant to report it even in an anonymous interview.

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