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Highway Fatalities Rising Because Drivers are Getting Worse

Young and old drivers alike engaging in dangerous driving habits.

by on Feb.16, 2017

It's no longer younger drivers engaging in texting and other distracted behaviors while driving, according to a new study.

After dropping for more than a decade, highway deaths in the U.S. have risen for the last two years. A new study shows why: drivers are getting worse.

According to a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, more than half of drivers in every age group have texted behind the wheel, run a red light or driven faster than the speed limit in the last 30 days.

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While young drivers are the worst offenders – 88% of drivers aged 19 to 24 engaged in at least one of the aforementioned behaviors – older drivers are doing them as well and in larger numbers than expected.

Ten percent of drivers between 60 and 74 have texted or sent email from behind the wheel, while 37% of drivers over 75 said they’d driven through a light that had just turned red.

“It was a surprise that there were relatively high rates of these behaviors among the drivers we think of as safer,” said Lindsay Arnold, a research associate with the AAA Foundation.

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She said the responses were similar to those in past years, indicating a troubling trend. In 2015, U.S. traffic deaths rose 7% to 35,092, the largest single-year increase in five decades. They’re expected to rise again in 2016.

“It points to the need to improve driver behavior if we’re going to reverse this alarming trend,” Arnold said.

Other findings from the study include:

  • The youngest drivers — those ages 16 to 18 — were less likely to engage in speeding, running red lights or texting while driving than drivers in their 20s through 50s.
  • Eighty-three percent of drivers — and 86.5% of drivers 75 or older — said they were more careful than other drivers on the road.
  • Just over half of drivers feel seriously threatened by drivers talking on cell phones, but 68% made a call while driving in the last 30 days.
  • Drivers ages 40-59 were the most likely to use a hands-free phone in the car. Drivers ages 16-18 and 75 or older were the most likely to hold their phones and talk while driving.
  • Twenty-three percent of drivers — and 36% of those ages 19 to 24 — think it’s acceptable to drive 15 mph over the speed limit on a freeway. Forty-six percent of drivers say they have driven that fast on a freeway in the last 30 days.
  • Sixty percent of drivers say people who drive after using illegal drugs are a serious threat, but just 34% say the same about people who drive after using prescription drugs.

While a substantial push to make younger drivers aware of the dangers of texting and driving as well as aggressive driving have been somewhat successful, it now appears that older drivers need a refresher course. The foundation is looking for the best ways to reach older drivers.

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Fortunately, there is some reason for optimism. The study shows that there is agreement on the dangers of some driving issue and action to avoid dangerous behavior.

Eighty-seven percent of drivers said they have never driven when they thought they were close to the legal alcohol limit. Ninety-five percent said they had never driven within an hour of using marijuana. Eighty-eight percent of drivers say it’s unacceptable to drive without a seat belt, and 82% support laws requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

However, when it comes to distracted driving, folks cannot seem to toe the line. More than three-quarters of drivers say it’s unacceptable to text or email while driving, but 31% had done so in the last month and 8% do so regularly.

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According to the study, 96% of drivers say drowsy driving is a serious safety threat, but 29% had recently driven when they were so tired they had trouble keeping their eyes open.

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4 Responses to “Highway Fatalities Rising Because Drivers are Getting Worse”

  1. Jim says:

    I would have thought it was because we have raised the speed limit from 55 to 70. This has always raised highway deaths in the past.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      Interesting, Jim, until a couple years ago, the fatality rate had been declining even as speed limits across the country were rising. I recognize some experts point to the speed limit increase as a factor, but I question whether that is a significant one or if there are other issues: increased miles driven, possible reversal in DUI numbers, distracted driving, etc. And there is also the fact that law enforcement tends to focus all but exclusively on speed violations while so many other illegal behaviors, ie not using turn signals, are rarely ticketed. Combine some of those behaviors with speeding and the problems could grow exponentially.

      Paul E.

  2. Robert Austin says:

    Has anyone else noticed that the use of turn signals seems to have dropped significantly in the last two years?

    Are people just too busy or distracted to use these convenient and helpful tools that have been on virtually all cars for more than 60 years!

  3. Fred says:

    Lack of any venue for Driver Education is likely a factor in these behaviors for the young, and intrusive “new” tech for the older drivers. Young drivers don’t know the “85% rule” re: speed; defensive driving is an unknown phrase; the degree of ease with which a car is now controlled is misleading.
    My dad’s original first commandment still works: “Assume everyone else on the road will do the wrong thing.”