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Distracted Driving Crashes in the EU

In the world of traffic safety, good news can sometimes be hard to find.  However, when it comes to the subject of European Union road fatalities, the trend is very encouraging.  They have declined 44% across member states since 2001.  The best improvement has been seen in Eesti and Latvia, which both saw a 61% reduction over the period.  Yet, as positive as these results are, they are somewhat tempered by the continued issue of distracted driving crashes, which are on the rise across the EU.

In the broadest sense, the term “distracted driving” can apply to a wide range of activities engaged in while operating a motor vehicle.  These include: applying makeup or grooming products, engaging in detailed conversations with passengers, shaving, adjusting radio settings, smoking, and eating.  Some drivers have even been observed reading or playing musical instruments while behind the wheel.

In terms of both frequent occurrence and media attention, though, distracted driving has become synonymous with driving while using nomadic devices.  These include mobile phones, tablet computers, portable navigation devices (PNDs), hand held music players, and television/video players.  Use of these products while driving is a factor in 30% of EU road accidents. 

Statistics show that mobile phones are the devices of choice for habitually negligent motorists.  Studies also demonstrate that those who use them while driving are overwhelmingly young, unskilled drivers who have had their licenses for relatively brief periods of time.  A particularly troubling piece of data, revealed by researchers at the University of Leeds, shows that while these drivers possess poor overall driving skills, their self-assessments of their motoring ability tend to be inordinately high.  This suggests a dangerous combination of low ability and over-confidence, thus increasing the number of distracted driving crashes.

Exacerbating this issue is the level to which mobile phones have penetrated European society.  A 2008 study showed that, for each EU resident, there are 1.2 such devices in use.  France showed the lowest proportion, with 88 active per 100 citizens.  In contrast, Italy demonstrated the highest level of penetration, with 1.5 in use for each Italian.

While youthful motorists are the most notorious offenders, the problem of mobile phone use while driving is widely spread across age groups.  Between 60 and 70% of EU drivers admit to making or receiving calls while behind the wheel, and 30% say they do this on a daily basis.

PNDs have become ubiquitous across the EU as well.  Statistics show that sales in 2008 alone amounted to 16.6 million.  By far, the largest purchasers of these devices have been Germans, though they are popular in the UK, France, Italy, and Spain as well.  Sufficient studies have yet to be done to show the correlation between their use and the likelihood of being in a vehicular accident.  However, safety experts affirm that they contribute to unsafe driving conditions, by distracting motorists on both cognitive and physical (“hands-on”) levels. 

Portable music players have found a warm reception in the EU as well, with 20% of motorists admitting that they use them along with headsets on a daily basis while driving.  The iPod™ is by far the most popular of these devices.  Statistical information on the use of other nomadic devices, such as TV/video players and tablets computers, is lacking at this point.  As with PNDs, though, authorities say that using them while driving is unsafe.

EU legislative efforts to curb distracted driving crashes have thus far focused almost entirely on regulating mobile phone use.  All EU nations require hands-free devices to be employed by motorists making or receiving calls.  The statutes range from mandating the use of headsets to requiring that phones be secured by mounting devices.

Regarding other nomadic devices, the regulatory landscape is far more uneven.  Sixteen nations have statutes regarding the use of PNDs while driving.  Thirteen have articles in place concerning music players, while fifteen have laws affecting the watching of TV/video players while a vehicle is in motion.  It is hoped that, with growing public awareness of the hazards of distracted driving, such initiatives will become more commonplace.