They say knowledge is power, but a disturbing new safety study proves that knowing an action is dangerous apparently doesn’t stop drivers from doing it anyway. A Harris poll published late last month found that of the thousands of drivers surveyed, large percentages clearly recognized the risks of driving while distracted or intoxicated – and then admitted to engaging in those same hazardous behaviors.

It’s alarming that so many people are acting so irresponsibly on the road, putting others’ lives in dangers, but it’s perhaps even more distressing to think that no amount of education or awareness seems to actually influence drivers’ behavior. What good does it do to spread a message through public safety announcements or awareness events if the audience listens and understands the information, but simply doesn’t care?

Signs educate drivers, but a sign alone can’t force drivers to change their behavior or their mindsets. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

What the Survey Says

This survey that should be interesting to, well, anyone who ever drives or rides in a car. First, there’s surprising information about drivers’ perceptions of risks. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Drinking and driving: 94 percent of responders think it’s dangerous to drive after consuming three (or more) drinks, while 68 percent think consuming even one or two drinks before driving is dangerous.
  • Cell phone use: 94 percent of responders think it is dangerous to send a text message while driving, and 91 percent think just reading a text message while driving is dangerous. Additionally, 69 percent of drivers surveyed thought having conversations with a hand-held phone while driving is a risk, and 36 percent felt the same way about hands-free phones. About 49 percent of respondents thought it was also dangerous to read texts while stopped at a red traffic light.

I guess we could consider it a positive thing that so many drivers at least recognize the risks. In terms of education alone, it means that safety campaigns have at least succeeded in hammering the message home.

Yet it’s hard not to let the disappointing rates of drivers’ behaviors drag down any positive spin you could put on this news.

  • Drinking and driving: About 37 percent – more than one-third – of respondents admitted to driving after drinking too much and 30 percent said they would drive even after having a few drinks as long as they were only going a short distance.
  • Cell phone use: 74 percent of drivers admit that they have ever used a cell phone to talk while driving, and 21 percent admit to doing so frequently. When it comes to texting, 45 percent of responders have ever read text messages and 15 percent make a habit out of it, while 37 percent of drivers have ever sent a message while driving and 14 percent do so frequently. About 36 percent of survey participants had looked something up on a smartphone or tablet while driving, and 12 percent do so on a regular basis. Another 13 percent have used a phone or tablet to watch a video while behind the wheel, and 24 percent have spent time posting on social media while driving.
  • Other: About 27 percent of respondents stated they had engaged in “personal grooming” while on the road. Not all distractions are high-tech, either. Another 19 percent have read a book, newspaper, or magazine while driving.

These percentages are more along the lines of what I would expect from people who didn’t know that the activities they were engaging in are dangerous.

Why Drivers Don’t Care Even When They Understand Risks

The assumption that people weren’t fully aware of just how dangerous distracted driving behavior can be is what started campaigns, public safety announcements, and days of observation. Now everyone should know the risks, but it seems that this knowledge hasn’t made us any safer.

While the study identified people in the age group of 18- to 36-years-old as the most common transgressors with regards to texting, social media use, and other distracted driving behaviors, other age groups were still solidly represented. Maybe that mistaken sense of invincibility that tends to characterize young drivers doesn’t end at any magical cutoff age. Maybe every driver just believes that even though bad things can happen, those bad things won’t happen to them. If so, this means that reducing distracted driving just got a whole lot harder. It means conquering drivers’ deeply-held (though flawed) beliefs that they are indestructible. Unfortunately, signs, billboards, and thirty-second commercials might not be enough when we’re asking drivers to admit that the danger is personal.

What do you think? Tell us your thoughts!