Auto Fatalities Are Down, But Driving Is Still Hazardous

By Richard A. McGrath, CIC, LIA

Today’s cars are safer than ever.  The same can’t be said for today’s drivers.

Cell phones, road rage and a lack of attention to driving rules have combined to create an unsafe environment.  While laws have become tougher on people who drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, many people still drive while intoxicated.  Stop signs and speed limits are ignored, as is the idea of using the left lane only for passing.  And a growing number of drivers don’t bother to use their blinkers.

Given the way many people drive, it’s no wonder that more than six million auto accidents take place in the United States each year.

Fortunately, though, because today’s cars are engineered for safety, the number of deaths resulting from accidents has been falling steadily.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s preliminary review of 2008 crash data found that during the first 10 months of 2008, traffic deaths fell about 10% to 31,110.  A separate study by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that highway deaths declined 10.7% last year in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

The number of fatalities may be dropping, but auto accidents are still dangerous, of course, and they also cause auto insurance premiums to rise.

Cell Phones and Road Rage

What can you do to help prevent accidents and keep your premiums in line?  The obvious steps are to pay attention to other cars, be courteous to other drivers, wear your seat belt and obey traffic laws.  But special attention should also be paid to cell phones and road rage.

Cell phones.  When cell phones first became popular, the biggest threat was that someone might be on the phone while driving.

Today, cell phones are ubiquitous.  Many drivers pay more attention to their phone conversations than they do to their driving.  Worse still, some drivers actual text while driving, even though they have to look away from the road to do so.

Recently, a young woman in central Massachusetts was killed because her car hit a tree while she was texting.  Unfortunately, many other people also text while driving.  According to one study, nearly half of all drivers between 18 and 24 text while driving.

The dangers of texting should be obvious.  It is impossible to pay attention to the road and to the keypad on a cell phone at the same time.  But many drivers – young and old – are distracted by cell phone conversations as well.

One study found that an average of 21% of fatal car crashes involving teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 are the result of cell phone use.  A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to get into serious accidents as those who are not driving while using a cell phone.

The publication Human Factor reported that motorists on cell phones are less adept at driving than drunk drivers with blood alcohol levels exceeding 0.08.

Ideally, of course, it’s best to avoid talking on a cell phone while driving.  Drivers should consider pulling over to the side of the road when talking on the phone, or at least driving in the slow lane, keeping conversations as brief as possible and paying more attention to traffic than to their conversation.

Hands-free technology may help, although one study found that drivers using the technology are just as likely to be in accidents as those that don’t.

Road rage.  Driving often brings out the worst in people.  Some drivers become aggressive and act as though every other driver is an obstacle.  Others become so self-absorbed, they act as though no one else is on the road.

How bad is road rage?  A Gallup poll reported that motorists are more worried about road rage (42%) than they are about drunk driving (35%).  And road rage is especially problematic in Massachusetts.  A 2006 survey by AutoVantage found that road rage is a bigger problem in Boston than in any other city except Miami and New York City.

It’s a significant problem, but many times road rage can be avoided.

It helps to be aware of other cars on the road at all times.  Glance in your rear-view mirror on occasion to ensure that no one is on your tail waiting for you to move over.  If you are in a passing lane, but driving at a rate of speed that is slower than average, move to the right and allow traffic to pass.  Don’t drive at the same rate of speed as the car next to you, as that will cause a “bottleneck” and hold up traffic.

If you are driving safely, and with respect and courtesy for other drivers, you will be far less likely to be a victim of road rage.  However, road rage is sometimes a matter of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If another driver begins acting aggressively, don’t act the same way back.  The worst thing to do is to return aggressive behavior with more aggressive behavior.  It just causes such behavior to escalate.

In fact, it’s better to ignore the other driver.  Avoid eye contact and don’t honk your horn or gesture at the other driver.  If the driver continues to act aggressively, call the police or move to a different lane and slow down to the point where you are no longer near the other driver.

Being considerate and courteous won’t eliminate road rage, but it will help reduce it – and you’ll reduce your stress as well.

Richard A. McGrath, CIC, LIA is President and CEO of McGrath Insurance Group, Inc. of Sturbridge, Mass.  He can be reached at

This article is written for informational purposes only and should not be construed as providing legal advice.