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75 percent of Philly-area drivers use phone in car. Can apps make them stop?

Researchers recommend turning on one smartphone function to help prevent distracted-driving crashes.

Joan Woodward, president of Travelers Institute and executive vice president of public policy at The Travelers Companies, Inc., speaks at a University of Pennsylvania symposium on distracted driving Tuesday, December 11, 2018.
Joan Woodward, president of Travelers Institute and executive vice president of public policy at The Travelers Companies, Inc., speaks at a University of Pennsylvania symposium on distracted driving Tuesday, December 11, 2018.Read moreThe Travelers Companies / Handout

Wondering whether that drifting driver who just cut you off was on his phone? Chances are he probably was.

Three-quarters of people on Philadelphia-area roads use a mobile device while driving, according to a survey released Tuesday. Many are concerned with communicating with family; others are worried about missing out on something; and some are just wanting to make the drive go by faster.

Fighting the lure of a glowing smartphone -- which experts believe has contributed to an increase in traffic fatalities and distracted-driving crashes -- is going to take a fundamental culture shift. Advocates have focused on changing norms, launching public information campaigns, and promoting legislation such as phone bans. Now, researchers are wondering if they can solve the problem with the hair of the dog: turning to technology to curb our addiction to technology.

“How can we make it less distracting to begin with and make people more mindful, and make them think twice about picking up the phone?” said Kit Delgado, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of emergency medicine and trauma center doctor, who researches distracted driving.

Delgado is studying how to “gamify” or create incentives for safety steps so that it becomes “a much more engaging experience and more fun” to stay off the phone. On Tuesday, he was among the researchers who participated in a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania about using science, technology, and innovation to combat distracted driving. The panel was hosted by the Travelers Institute, which conducted the survey of 435 Philadelphia-area drivers late last month.

Already available on most smartphones is a “do not disturb while driving” capability that, when turned on, mutes notifications and sends automatic replies to texts while the phone owner’s vehicle is in motion. Having such a feature automatically turned on reduced phone use while driving by 50 percent in a study conducted by Delgado, while phone use increased among groups having to turn it on at the start of each drive or not using it at all.

Just 9 percent of people in the survey used such a feature. “A lot of what our future research is focused on is, how do we get people to commit to doing [it] and them nudge toward using that,” Delgado said.

Some major auto insurers, including Travelers, Progressive, and State Farm, have launched apps that track a driver’s behavior and offer discounts as rewards for safe driving. The Travelers app, for instance, also dispenses tips to improve driving and can earn the user discounts of up to 20 percent. And, of course, it helps the insurance companies predict who might get into a crash.

People ages 20 to 37 use their phones at the highest rate, according to the survey of 435 drivers in the region. Ninety-one percent of survey respondents said they use a device while driving, compared with 79 percent of Gen Xers and 64 percent of baby boomers.

“Students generally think they’re invincible, that they can safely drive and text,” said Joan Woodward, president of the Travelers Institute, the public policy division of Travelers Cos. Inc.

Among millennials, 87 percent reported using navigation apps; 34 percent, recording video or taking photos; and 59 percent, typing texts or emails -- all higher numbers than among any other age group. But older people didn’t abstain either-- about half of all drivers admitted to texting and more than half said they used a navigation app.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what it is, whether it’s sending a text or checking something — anything that’s either looking at your phone and taking your eyes off the road for more than two seconds increases the risk of a crash by fivefold, which is in that moment more than the risk of being drunk," Delgado said.

While Pennsylvania has a ban on texting while driving, it doesn’t outlaw other uses, and police officers say it can be difficult to enforce. Drivers aren’t frequently ticketed for it, the Inquirer reported in May. Though neighboring states, including New Jersey, have hands-free driving laws, Pennsylvania does not.

A 2016 study from State Farm showed that talking on the phone while driving was decreasing slightly, but texting, using social media, and going online were increasing. Collecting data on distracted driving and tying it to traffic accidents can be difficult because people must honestly report their habits, police reports can be incomplete, and multiple factors can contribute to crashes.

The new numbers show that 40 percent of people in the Philadelphia area said they considered fear of a collision the biggest deterrent to using their phones — but that fear doesn’t seem to be enough to get most people to actually put down the phone, researchers say.

Delgado recalled a conversation with an emergency-room patient:

“The ping of his phone went off, and he said, before he even knew it, he picked it up. … He fumbled the phone, dropped it on the floor, and next thing he knew, he slammed into the guardrail,” Delgado said. “We don’t even think about it. By default, the phone is distracting.”

The Philadelphia-area drivers who were surveyed said their reasons for using the phone included family or work obligations or not wanting to miss something important. “FOMO — fear of missing out” — plays a significant role, Woodward said.

“We’ve had distracted driving for a long time, it’s just technology has really exacerbated the amount of collisions we’ve seen," Woodward said. "It has become an even more pressing problem for our society. We think we’re invincible with technology because we’re so good at it when we’re sitting at home.”