The IA Newsletter, October 2011


Why you're a bad driver and I'm not!

Cellphones and other distractions have us worrying more than ever about our fellow motorists. But we fool ourselves into thinking we're not part of the problem, too.

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The road has always been a dangerous place. But today's drivers report being more scared than ever, even as the rates of fatal crashes in the United States drop to record lows.

The source of that heightened fear -- and anger -- is hardly a surprise: It's other drivers. You know, them -- the selfish ones, the lane-blocking ones, the failing-to-signal ones. And now those drivers seem to be even more enamored with their phones and other gadgets, at the expense of everyone else's safety and car insurance rates.

In a Texas Transportation Institute survey, four-fifths of drivers there say cellphone use has gotten worse in the past five years. By a wide margin, drivers even in such a fiercely libertarian state support bans on cellphone use while driving.

The AAA says that more than half of U.S. drivers surveyed in 2010 reported feeling less safe than they did five years earlier, a 17% jump from the year before. Nearly half blamed driver distraction. Most want stricter laws prohibiting cellphone use behind the wheel.

In this brave new world, it's very possible to be an aggressive, dangerous driver without ever exceeding the speed limit, getting into an accident or racking up driving violations.

Dialing a phone while driving triples the risk of a crash, according to AAA data, while simply talking increases the risk by 30%. The U.S. Department of Transportation attributed 16% of auto fatalities in 2008 and 2009 -- a total of 11,312 deaths -- to distracted driving.

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But here's where driver surveys get interesting, and where they shed light on what's often overlooked in discussions about fear and rage on the road: Those other drivers are us.

Do-as-I-say drivers

In poll after poll, the same drivers who complain about what others do admit to engaging in the same behavior.

· A Pemco Insurance survey of Washington drivers found that nine out of 10 believed left-lane campers were a problem, but only 9% admitted to lane-blocking themselves.

· In the AAA survey, two-thirds of drivers said they used a cellphone behind the wheel in the past month. One-third admitted to doing so regularly.

· Nationwide insurance found last year that nearly half of drivers said they received texts and emails while driving, and more than 80% did so while stopped in traffic. Sixty percent of those with DVD players admitted to operating the units while driving.

· According to a study by Allstate, seven in 10 drivers say they've braked or swerved hard, missed a traffic signal or caused an accident because they were distracted.

"In poll after poll, we see instances where people recognize that these are risky behaviors, yet very significant numbers, when you ask, 'Have you done X in the last month?' say, 'Yes,' " says Peter Kissinger, the president and CEO of AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety.

AAA calls it the "do as I say, not as I do" factor.

It's not you, it's me

Do we think we simply chat while driving less often than those other drivers? When we see others doing it, do we forget that we're guilty ourselves? Or do we just think we're more adept than others?

Yes on all counts, say researchers.

"We call it the self-serving bias," says Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and co-author of the book "Road Rage and Agreesive Driving."

This unconscious bias is hardly limited to the road. Most of us, particularly in individualistic countries like America, rate ourselves as above average in intelligence, work ethic, physical aptitude, character, even purity.

In one 1997 survey that gauged personal morality, 87% of those polled said they were likely to get into heaven themselves, but only 79% thought Mother Theresa would be granted entry.

'Defensive driving' if I do it, 'road rage' if you do it

Such rosy subjectivity is great for warding off depression but lousy for mitigating conflict. Nearly all of us walk around -- or drive around -- with a blind spot to our own missteps. Add the stress of traffic and it's a quick recipe for road rage -- and a great way to lose your affordable insurance premiums.

"Driving is the most dangerous thing people do on a regular basis," James says. "When there's a near miss or mistakes are made, the stakes are much higher. So this tends to raise the level of emotion quite a bit."

When James surveys drivers, on average they admit to driving aggressively 30% of the time. But they say that others drive aggressively 80% of the time.

"Clearly there is a 50% gap in awareness among drivers about their own aggressiveness," he says. "We do not, without training ourselves, observe our own driving mistakes."

Those who want to rid the roads of those awful other drivers should start with themselves, says James.

"In my case, I realize I am not such a good driver because my wife, who is the passenger, started pointing my mistakes out to me," he says. One of his occasional oversights: forgetting to turn off the turn signal. Have you done that?

Small oversights -- failing to signal every highway lane change, following too closely, merging imperfectly -- make you that other, "aggressive" driver, he says.

People "don't understand this fundamental thing: It's aggressive because it threatens other people. . . . It increases the risk factor."

This article was reported by Karen Aho for CarInsurance.com.


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