N.J. Drivers Behaving Badly, But Still Say They’re Better Than N.Y.

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MADISON—The number of New Jersey drivers who admit to sending text messages while driving increased by 40% this past year.

According to a recent study by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll, co-sponsored by the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, 21% now say that they have sent a text while driving, up from 15% a year ago. The study also found that one in ten drivers say they can have three drinks and still be “okay” to drive, and the majority says that drivers from New York are the worst on the road.

Young people are still much more likely than their older counterparts to send a text message while driving: 57% under the age of 30 say they’ve done so, up 6 points from last year. But older drivers are increasingly likely to join them: more than one in four (28%) drivers 30 to 44 years of age (up 8 points from last year) say they have sent a text message while behind the wheel, along with about 1 in 8 (12%) of drivers aged 45 to 60. The only people not sending texts in traffic were those over 60; of whom only 1% sent a message while driving.

“As we embrace new technology, the number of people sending texts while driving continues to increase,” said Dan Cassino, the director of experimental research for the PublicMind poll, and a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

This is happening despite the fact that 86% support the state’s primary cell phone and texting law, and 71% say it should be more strictly enforced. “People seem to have gotten the message about cell phones and driving, but for some reason don’t get it about texting.”

Texting is just one element in a related group of bad driving behaviors on Garden State roadways. Motorists who text are also more likely to use hand-held phones behind the wheel, regularly drive over the speed limit on highways, and make rude gestures at other motorists. “The results suggest that there is a group of drivers in the state – many of whom have long commutes – who drive faster than the rest of us, and do so while multi-tasking,” said Cassino. “But I have to imagine that text messaging while making rude gestures is a bad idea at any speed.”

The number of drivers who use hand-held phones while driving has stabilized, after a large decline from 2007 and 2008. Today, four out of five (80%) drivers say they “rarely” or “never” use a hand-held phone behind the wheel, unchanged from last year, and improved from 71% in 2007.

Nonetheless, 18% of respondents hold cell phones while driving “very often” or “sometimes.” And these numbers do not include people who talk on hands-free phones while driving. Despite research showing that using a hands-free cell phone while driving is just as risky as holding a cell phone while driving, 70% of New Jersey drivers say that hands-free phones are safer.

“New Jersey crash data clearly shows that motorists are at risk whether they’re talking on a hand-held or hands-free phone,” said Division of Highway Safety Director Pam Fischer. “Any cell phone conversation is distracting and dangerous. The best way to ensure your safety is to hang up and just drive.”

Meanwhile, 84% of New Jersey drivers say they drive over 65 miles per hour at least once in awhile, with 1 in 4 saying that they do so “most of the time.” Nearly half (47%) say they go over 75 miles per hour on occasion. This correlates to the fact, that only one in four (20%) drivers say the real speed limit on New Jersey highways — the speed at which you can go without getting a ticket — is less than 70 mph. One in four (25%) say the real speed limit is 75 mph or greater.

“Unsafe speed was a factor in more than 22,000 crashes last year,” pointed out Fischer, “a number that has been on the increase since 2001. Couple speeding with other unsafe behaviors like tailgating, running red lights and stops signs, and weaving in and out of traffic, or talking on a cell phone, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

Speeding behavior is strongly correlated to the distance that drivers commute to work: three out of four (74%) drivers who commute more than 30 miles each way to work say they go over 65 mph “most of the time” or “often,” compared to 46% of those who drive less than 10 miles each way to work. Drivers who go over 65 mph “most of the time” or “often” are also more prone to talk on a hand-held cell phone while driving, with one in four (26%) doing so “very often” or “sometimes,” compared to 10% of drivers who speed “just once in a while” or “never.” The same pattern applies to text messaging: drivers who speed regularly are two and a half times as likely as other drivers to have sent a text message while driving.

Despite admitting to such dangerous driving behaviors, the vast majority of New Jersey drivers – 70% – say their driving skills are above average, while only 1% (almost all under the age of 30) admit being below average. A majority of married drivers (62%) also rate their spouse’s skills “above average,” but only 29% of married drivers – and only 1 in 5 men – say their spouse is a better driver than themselves.

Fischer believes that it’s time for all motorists to conduct a “personal reality check” of their own driving behaviors. “We have to stop blaming each other for our bad driving practices and take personal responsibility for what we’re doing behind the wheel. If you’re driving faster than the posted speed limit, drinking alcohol and then driving, sending a text message while behind the wheel, or committing some other unlawful and unsafe act, you’re a hazard on the road.”

One in five drivers (21%) also say that they have consumed alcohol and then driven, up 6 points from last year. More educated drivers are actually more likely to drink and drive: 30% of respondents with a post-college education admit to it, compared to fewer than one in five of those who don’t have a college diploma.

While one in four drivers (24%) say they don’t drink, half of all drivers (and 77% of just those who do drink) think that they’re “okay” to drive after having a drink. One in five say they can have two drinks (and 27% of drinkers), and one in 10 of all drivers (11%, or 16% of those who drink) say that they can have three or more drinks and still be “okay” to drive.

“Just as people overestimate their driving skills – almost everyone says that they’re above average—people overestimate their alcohol tolerance,” said Cassino. “Men want to say that they can hold their liquor. It’s no coincidence that they’re twice as likely to drink and drive.” Last year in New Jersey, nearly one in three fatal motor vehicle crashes involved alcohol.

According to Jersey drivers, the really bad drivers are from New York: 54% say Empire State drivers are the “worst” in the area, easily beating out the 16% who cite Pennsylvania’s drivers as the “worst.” Meanwhile, 7% volunteer that their fellow Garden State drivers are the “worst,” despite it not being an option on the survey.

“There’s a certain kind of logic to these results,” said Cassino. “If almost everyone in New Jersey is above average, the bad drivers have to be somewhere.”

“We’ve made tremendous gains in safety, in particular during the past year, when fatalities declined to the lowest number since 1948,” added Director Fischer, “and we made these gains, in spite of ourselves, and our often bad behavior behind the wheel. Imagine the even greater impact we could have on traffic safety, if everyone not only owned up to their own safety indiscretions but corrected them.”

The Fairleigh Dickinson University survey was co-sponsored by the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety and conducted by telephone from April 28 through June 1 using a randomly selected sample of 951 New Jersey residents aged 17 and over who report they drive regularly, including an oversample of drivers under the age of 30. It has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.


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