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Cellphone, food can drive us to distraction

By Susan Gilmore
Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Most Washington drivers wouldn't dream of shaving while behind the wheel of a car.

But eating a meal is another matter.

While more than a third of the drivers polled in a statewide survey say eating while driving is very dangerous, two-thirds say they have done it anyway.

Those are among the findings of a newly released poll of driver distractions sponsored by Pemco Insurance. Conducted in December, the poll has a margin of error of four percentage points.

"The evidence is clear. Distractions lead to crashes," said Jon Osterberg, a Pemco spokesman. "The most dangerous activity is reaching for things and taking your eyes off the road."

What's happened, said Osterberg, is that as cars accumulate more gear that distracts drivers, accidents increase. A big item is CD players, because drivers often fiddle with them and pick up dropped CDs, looking away from the road.

The poll looked at five activities considered distractions behind the wheel: applying makeup or shaving, eating a meal, talking on a cellphone, reading a newspaper or book, driving with your legs and no hands on the wheel, and writing a text message on a cellphone.

While the activities are not outlawed while driving, the State Patrol says all of them can get you a ticket, based on an officer's discretion. For example, if you're reading a book and that causes you to swerve, or if an officer determines that your distracted driving is putting yourself or other drivers in danger, you can be ticketed.

The 600 Washington residents surveyed by Market Trends were asked how dangerous they considered the activities and whether they had done them.

Considered most dangerous was reading while driving; 90 percent of those surveyed said it was very dangerous. Only 6 percent of the drivers said they had ever done it.

That was followed by writing a text message on a cellphone while behind the wheel of a car. The poll found 87 percent said it was very dangerous and just 3 percent said they had done it.

As for talking on a cellphone, 40 percent said it was very dangerous; 58 percent said they had done it.

An earlier poll taken by Pemco found that more men than women use cellphones on the road and that women are more likely to see it as very dangerous.

"We found that when drivers eat food or call a friend, they do so despite thinking it's dangerous," Osterberg said. "Our goal is to help drivers understand that when they do that, they're going against their better judgment."

Osterberg, whose company insures 310,000 drivers in Washington state, said Pemco sponsored the poll to look at optional and preventable activities that drivers do while behind the wheel.

The poll also found:

  • The percentage who considered it very dangerous to eat while driving varied widely by county, with just 22 percent of those in Kitsap County calling it highly dangerous compared to 83 percent in Island County.
  • A high majority in Thurston and Island counties thought talking on a cellphone was dangerous, compared to just 34 percent in Pierce County. At 66 percent, Snohomish County drivers are the most likely in the state to have used cellphones while driving. That compares to just 33 percent in Grant County.
  • The poll found 21 percent of women surveyed said they had put on makeup while driving, compared to 6 percent of the men who said they had shaved behind the wheel. Single, highly educated women between 18 and 34 were most likely to have applied makeup on the road.
  • While 71 percent of the men surveyed said they had eaten a meal while driving, only 60 percent of women said they had.
  • Those who have talked on cellphones while driving are the wealthiest with the highest education. And while 76 percent of those from 18 to 34 admit they have talked on the cellphone while behind the wheel, only 35 percent of those over 55 said they had.
  • There's clearly a gender divide on driving with legs and no hands on the wheel. While 36 percent of men polled admitted to having done that, only 15 percent of the women confessed they also had.

None of the activities that Pemco sampled received a safe rating from drivers. Still, the poll found that the more a driver admitted to a distracting activity, the less likely he or she was to see that behavior as dangerous.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver distraction contributes to between 20 and 30 percent of all crashes.

"If you're trying to find that glob of mustard you dropped, or you're looking at your phone keypad, you're not prepared to deal with changes on the roadway," Osterberg said.

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