Ask a younger driver which is worse: A crash from someone texting, or a crash from someone drinking? Which one do you think they would pick?
It turns out the answer is a bit complicated.
Here at the University of Kansas, we've recently finished a study in which we presented four different groups of younger drivers with a description of the same crash scenario, but with a small twist to each version. We'll present the full findings at the Psychonomics Society Conference later this year. In one case, a driver was attentive. In another, drinking. In a third case, the driver was on the phone. And in the final version, the driver was texting prior to the crash. In all cases, the crash was serious, with major damage and the other driver taken away in an ambulance.
We asked participants to rate how preventable each crash was, how much the driver should be fined and how much jail time should the driver serve.
In the good news column, the younger drivers rated the texting crash as the most preventable. Some more good news? They thought the drunk driver crash and the calling driver crash were equally preventable, though less so than the texting crash. The attentive driver crash was the least preventable of all.
In the bad news column, despite saying the texting crash was the most preventable, the younger drivers did not punish it as strongly. The attentive, talking and texting drivers were fined equally, but far less than they fined drunk drivers. And only the drunk drivers were assigned a significant amount of time in jail.
In a second version where we had them consider the crash in the context of a serious distracted-driving law, the texting driver was punished a bit more, but still not even close to the drunk driver.
So, what's with my reference to the 1970s?
Well, the study has two key elements that tie it very closely to that era. First, it was modeled on a study done in 1977, to ascertain the social attitude regarding drinking and driving. What we found, nearly 35 years later, was that there's a stronger social norm against drunk driving now, as we might expect.
Second, the attitude of younger drivers today regarding distracted driving is very much like the attitudes toward drunk driving in the 70s. Namely, "It's bad but let's not punish folks for doing it, because I am doing it."
But being stuck in the 70s is not without its advantages. It was in the 70s and 80s that we saw the biggest change in laws, enforcement, education and attitudes about drunk driving. It was on the heels of those 1970s changes that MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), was formed. That rethinking resulted in the new attitude toward drunk driving that we're experiencing today.
Hopefully, we can see a similar change regarding distracted driving in the near future. Already, we're seeing some inkling of that change, with the formation of a growing number of advocacy groups and the Department of Transportation's Faces of Distracted Driving campaign. Here's hoping that's just the start.