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People still love distracted driving, new IIHS study finds

Despite the obvious dangers, cell phone use while driving is still on the rise.

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More than 800 deaths from automobile crashes in 2017 could be attributed to phone-based distracted driving, according to extrapolated data from a new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study.

The IIHS study compares distracted driving in Northern Virginia between 2014 and 2017, the latest full year for which crash data was available. According to its 2018 roadside survey, drivers in that area were 57 percent more likely to be fiddling with a device behind the wheel than in 2014. Of all the drivers observed in the study, 3.4 percent were manipulating a phone behind the wheel, up from 2.3 percent in 2014.

Here's how the IIHS ran its study. It placed researchers at 12 locations across Northern Virginia, including both intersections and straight roads. Approximately 12,000 drivers were observed over the course of the study. It then used that data to create a nationwide model, including additional research that showed the risk of a fatal crash is 66 percent higher when phone manipulation is involved.

At the least, people are slowly figuring out that physically holding a phone and taking calls while driving is a bad idea.

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Interestingly enough, drivers observed as part of the IIHS study were less likely to actually hold or talk on a phone. Fewer drivers were seen making hand-held calls and physically holding their phones, but a phone doesn't have to be held to be distracting, and it appears that folks are just finding different ways to use their phones behind the wheel, contributing to an overall rise in distracted driving.

"The latest data suggest that drivers are using their phones in riskier ways," says David Kidd, a senior research scientist with the Highway Loss Data Institute. "The observed shift in phone use is concerning because studies consistently link manipulating a [phone] while driving to increased crash risk."

During its study, the IIHS found a full 23 percent of drivers were engaged in distracted driving, whether that meant using a phone, smoking, eating or grooming. In fact, the proportion of drivers using phones was actually lower than the proportion of drivers distracted by non-phone activities. Even though crash deaths involving distractions have been lowering, the IIHS notes that this data is tough to source, because it requires the people involved in the crash being truthful to the police about driving while distracted.

Self-driving cars: Wait for these to arrive before you pull out the phone.

Concept cars: See how automakers envision post-driving life.