As traffic deaths rise, study finds young adults rank highest in risky driving behavior

Author: Ernest Luning - February 15, 2017 - Updated: February 15, 2017

Distracted driving is on the rise, transportation officials say, and a February report released by the AAA Foundation backs that finding up with survey data. (Photo courtesy
Distracted driving is on the rise, transportation officials say, and a February report released by the AAA Foundation backs that finding up with survey data. (Photo courtesy

An annual study released this week by the Washington, D.C.-based AAA Foundation found that an overwhelming majority of young-adult drivers engage in risky behavior behind the wheel, including texting, running red lights and speeding, making them the worst-behaved drivers on the road. Their older cohorts however, don’t do much better, the study found, with the very oldest drivers counted as the safest, but then only by comparison.

The study backs up data compiled by the Colorado Department of Transportation and its executive director’s assessment that the state is suffering from an “epidemic of distracted driving,” on top of perennial problems including impaired and foolhardy driving.

CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt told The Colorado Statesman in a recent interview that he suspected increasing distraction behind the wheel — “people on phones, on their devices” — was to blame for a rise in traffic deaths on state roads over the past two years, reversing a decade’s worth of falling fatalities.

Linda Cavanagh, the president and CEO of AAA Colorado, said the organization is committed to promoting what she termed a “culture of responsibility” in order to protect its 650,000 members and everyone else on the road.

“Colorado does much to protect its road users,” she said in a statement. “It’s already illegal to text and drive, and we’re one of only a handful of states with a marijuana per se law.”

Nevertheless, she pointed out, Colorado had 605 traffic-related fatalities last year, up roughly 11 percent from the year before and 24 percent from 2014, according to preliminary data compiled by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“Today’s report makes it clear that there’s much, much more we can do to keep each other safe,” Cavanagh said. “Drivers new and old should remember to slow down, never drive impaired, put your phone in your glovebox and obey every single traffic signal.”

The national AAA Foundation study found that 88 percent of young-adult drivers — age 19-24 — had engaged in at least one behavior considered risky behind the wheel in the previous 30 days. The road-safety nonprofit noted that the study results coincided with a 7-percent increase in traffic deaths across the country in 2015, the most recent figures available nationwide. It was the biggest jump year-to-year since the 1960s.

Still, while other age groups had lower rates of reported recent risky behavior, none of them fell below two-thirds of respondents in the survey. The lowest share of drivers who reported they had sped, run red lights or texted while driving in the past 30 days was 67.3 percent for drivers ages 60-74, just below drivers over age 75 and drivers ages 16-18, with both age ranges coming in just over 69 percent.

The Washington, D.C.-based AAA Foundation, a nonprofit research and education organization dedicated to preventing automobile crashes and reducing injuries when crashes occur, has been producing its Traffic Safety Culture Index since 2008.

This year’s report found that Americans believe that acting unsafely behind the wheel — speeding, driving while impaired or distracted driving — is a serious threat to their safety, and they support laws that would make the roads safer by restricting behavior, even when the laws would restrict behavior they say they practice themselves.

The study’s authors point out that its findings exhibit a “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to traffic safety — saying it isn’t in the least bit acceptable to drive 15 mph over the speed limit on highway while admitting they’ve done so themselves in the past month.

Along those lines, 88.4 percent of drivers surveyed said they support laws restricting any texting or similar use of a mobile device — reading, typing or sending a text message or email — while behind the wheel. But 31.4 percent reported that they’d typed or otherwise sent a text message or email while driving in the past month, and 40.2 percent said they’d read a text message or email during the same period while driving. The drivers ages 19-24 were nearly twice as likely as all drivers to report they’d sent a text message or email while driving.

While nearly all of the drivers surveyed — 96.7 percent — view drinking and driving as a serious threat to traffic safety, 13 percent said they’d driven in the last year when their alcohol level was probably at or above the legal limit, and 2.1 percent said they’d done so in the past month.

By a wide margin, 71.8 percent of drivers surveyed support requiring built-in interlock ignition devices — a breathalyzer to determine whether the driver has been drinking — on all new vehicles. A larger share, 84.2 percent, supports per se laws for marijuana intoxication. Only a handful of drivers — 4.9 percent — reported that they’d driven within an hour of using marijuana during the past year.

Almost half of the young-adult drivers — ages 19-24 — said they’d driven in the past month through a light that had just turned red when they could have stopped safely, while just 36 percent of all drivers said they’d run a red light under those circumstances. In addition, close to 14 percent of drivers in that age range said it was OK to drive through a red light that had just turned red, compared with just 6 percent of all drivers.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.