Want safer roads and lower car insurance rates?
Then you'd better welcome all those driver-safety campaigns, not to mention stricter laws. Because apparently drivers need the message hammered home repeatedly to stop doing stupid things behind the wheel.
Take the deeper findings behind a recent and well-publicized study of driver behaviors and attitudes conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently.
At first blush, the findings indicated drivers were less concerned than a few years ago about some clearly dangerous habits, like driving while intoxicated or drowsy. Of course, safety experts expressed disappointment.
Based on 11,000 interviews conducted over four years, the study found that fewer American drivers today apparently perceived the following a "very serious threat:"
- Drinking and driving (down from 90 percent calling it a "very serious threat" in 2009 to 69 percent doing so in 2012).
- Driving while drowsy (down from 71 percent to 46 percent over the same period).
- Texting or emailing while driving (a shift of 87 percent to 81 percent).
- Those who called running a red light "completely unacceptable" dropped from 77 percent to 71 percent.
Add that 26 percent admitted to texting while driving (up from 21 percent), and 68 percent to talking on a cell phone, and U.S. drivers would appear to be increasingly complacent even as traffic deaths inched up for the first time in seven years, to 33,780 in 2012 from 32,367 the year before.
But these experts weren't particularly shocked, or all that worried, given some other, more encouraging, results.
'It's not rocket science -- it's harder'
In fact, these kinds of peeks into driver attitudes align with what auto safety experts have known for many decades, that recalibrating human behavior is a slow bake, requiring time, education, legislation and more time.
"One of my friends who is a psychologist likes to say, 'Changing driving behavior is not rocket science, it's harder than rocket science,' " said Peter Kissinger, head of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "And that's really the truth."
It makes sense that drunken driving has dropped off some people's risk radar. The legal, societal and financial repercussions of a DUI charge are well-known and at times harsh; police disapprove, your neighbors disapprove, and your car insurance company disapproves. Those "Mad Men" days of taking "one for the road" are long gone.
Ironically, all that messaging may have bitten back, with some people assuming the problem is largely solved. Of course, it's not. Drunken drivers still account for a third of traffic fatalities, with the numbers of those killed only recently dropping below 10,000 per year.
Compounding the perception problem is the fact that the media during those years have shifted focus to the new threat of distracted driving. It certainly deserves attention.
In 2011, a quarter of all crashes in this country involved either talking on cell phones (21 percent, or 1.1 million crashes) or texting (4 percent, or 213,000 crashes), according to estimates from the National Safety Council. And those numbers could be low. Experts say the role phones play in accidents is difficult to measure and often goes unreported.
But even though most people think using a cell phone while driving is unacceptable and support laws against at least texting, people still do it. Not only that, studies indicate they do it just as much even while objecting more to other people doing it (a clear case of "Do as I say, not as I do.").
The nagging is just beginning
Yet safety advocates express optimism for the long term.
How could that be? Their first point of context: seat belts.
"If we were doing this interview in the 1970s, and you asked what chance is there of getting seat belt use to 50 percent, I would have said, virtually no chance," Kissinger said.
Although doctors had been urging auto manufacturers to install seat belts at the factory, since the 1930s, and the first belts were installed in 1950, by the 1970s only 10 to 15 percent of drivers wore them.
Seat belts, drivers rationalized, would trap occupants in the car, subjecting them to drowning or fire. The belt itself would cause damage, decapitation even. Far safer to be thrown from the car, they said. Even race car drivers rejected seat belts into the 1950s, said Kissinger.
Today, more than 80 percent of U.S. drivers buckle up. In some areas compliance rates - mandatory use is the law in every state - is in the high 90s.
What happened? Decades of repeated safety messages, persistent lobbying by safety advocates, and laws that were enforced by police hammered the message home.
"Then eventually society reacts to that and says, OK, this is what one does. It becomes a thoughtless habit. There's a certain mindless state of protection," said Kenneth Beck, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health who studies traffic safety. "it would be nice if the day would come when people would have that same mindless protection when it comes to talking on the cell phone, texting and other distracted driving behaviors."
Given that, according to the same AAA study, 86 percent of Americans now support a law against texting while driving and 49 percent a ban of all cell phone use (including hands free) while driving, we're already well ahead of where we were with seat belts in the 1970s.
"I'm realistic," said Kissinger. "It generally does take time. I'm not talking a couple of years. I'm talking a decade or even longer."