Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

View of Risk Shifts with Who Is in Driver's Seat

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

View of Risk Shifts with Who Is in Driver's Seat

Article excerpt

Do we kid ourselves about safety each time we climb into a car?

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released last week indicates that New Jerseyans are (ahem) less than honest in judging safety. It suggests in particular that our attitudes about distracted driving -- the leading cause of road fatalities statewide and nationally -- change radically depending on which seat in the car we occupy.

When queried as passengers, for example, 90 percent of poll respondents ranked reading -- either a book, newspaper, or tablet -- as a driver's most dangerous activity. Nearly as many -- 87 percent - - rated reading emails as very dangerous, too. And coming in third at 60 percent was talking on a hand-held cellphone, a practice specifically barred by state law.

But when questioned as drivers, the same 871 respondents pleaded guilty to much of the same distracting conduct that worries them as passengers. Forty percent admitted to eating or drinking at least on some of their trips, and another 17 percent said they do so on most trips. Thirty percent said they make or accept calls some of the time, and 17 percent said they do it most of the time -- either hand- held or hands-free. Seventeen percent consider hands-free devices to be very unsafe; 22 percent call them somewhat unsafe.

"As passengers, New Jerseyans see the risks, but as drivers they don't want to admit to taking those risks," concluded David Redlawsk, a Rutgers political science professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.

The risks are substantial.

Distracted driving killed more people in the state 175 -- than any other circumstance in 2012, the latest year for which specific New Jersey State Police figures are available. That's far more than any other factor, including pedestrian violations -- 126 -- and speeding -- 98.

But the poll, which focused only on distractions, offered some good news, too: Three in four respondents said they never text or email and hardly anyone admitted reading a book while driving.

There was also this surprise: Five percent of respondents acknowledged nodding off or falling asleep while driving, at least for a moment -- much lower than a 2013 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study that found 28 percent of motorists struggled to stay awake while driving.

Redlawsk tempered the more positive findings, however.

"Drivers traditionally underreport behaviors they know are undesirable," he said. "We suspect that self-reporting of the most dangerous behaviors, like falling asleep ... understates the truth."

The truth? It seems too many of us lie -- not only to pollsters but to ourselves and our families. This pattern seemed to play out last month when the insurer Liberty Mutual released a national poll that assessed the dynamics between parents and the teens they were teaching to drive. …

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