Ask people if smartphone use is distracting while driving, and they’ll agree.  Ask them whether it should be a punishable offense, and they’ll say it should.  They may even welcome the notion of an app that would keep them from engaging in such behavior.

Nonetheless, smartphone use while driving is on the rise.

Of course, the upward trend in smartphone use while driving may be largely due to the fact that more drivers own smart phones.  According to figures recently released by State Farm, 80 percent of drivers now own a smartphone.  That’s up substantially from 52 percent just three years ago.  And percentages are even higher among demographics such as the 18-29 age group, where 94 percent of drivers are smartphone users.

There’s also considerable variation in the types of digital activities that are distracting drivers.  The percentage of drivers willing to admit to talking on their handheld devices, for example, has come down from a high of 65 percent in 2009, the first year State farm did the study, to 55 percent today.  Programming a navigation system, on the other hand, has risen from 30 percent to 48 percent over the same period.  And Internet browsing has doubled from 13 percent to 26 percent.

As would be expected, digital distraction is more pervasive with the 18-29 demographic.  GPS programming was already higher among this group than it was with the general population back in 2009 at 48 percent, and has since risen to 65 percent.  Internet browsing, emailing and social media activity are also much higher among Millennials.

That said, drivers do seem to try and regulate their behavior somewhat based on driving conditions.  63 percent of respondents to State Farm’s survey said they are more likely to use their smartphones in ways that require them to look at and touch the screen when they are stopped at a red light.  On the flip side, 93 percent are less likely to do so when they are driving on an icy road.

“While people have a greater understanding of the amount of attention required to safely drive in certain conditions, such as ice and fog, they may not fully understand that using a phone while stopped at a red light is actually very dangerous,” says Chris Mullen, State Farm’s director of technology research.  “More than a third of all crashes occur at intersections, so drivers should not engage in any activities that take their attention off their surroundings or interfere with their ability to perform adequate surveillance.”

Without any measures to counteract the increasing pervasiveness of smartphones and the increasing number of things we can do with them, it is likely that distracted driving will become even more commonplace.  That may be why 88 percent of those surveyed support laws that prohibit texting and emailing while driving, and 67 percent support technology that would block such activity.

The exact nature of the laws we’d like to see enacted is unclear.  More than half believe that jail time is an appropriate punishment for someone whose smartphone-distracted driving causes a death, but only 36 percent believe license suspension or revocation is appropriate for a similar accident resulting in injury.  His may be because we identify more with the possibility of the latter than the former.

A complete copy of State Farm’s sixth annual Distracted Driving Survey is available here

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