Like most people, you probably feel differently about driving on busy Springfield and northern Virginia streets than you do when driving in rural parts of the state. Congested urban streets, highways and interstates tend to intensify drivers’ concentration on speed, proximity to other vehicles, awareness of changes in traffic flow, and so on. Relatively open rural roads tend to allow drivers to take in more of the scenery and even relax behind the wheel.
Investigating a road relationship
In the ongoing effort to reduce motor vehicle crashes, researchers recently investigated the relationship between road geometrics (the physical characteristics of roadways) and drivers’ phone use.
Phone use behind the wheel is the leading cause of distracted driving that is in turn, one of the leading causes of preventable car wrecks.
Texas A&M University researchers determined that though phone use while driving is a choice that people make, there’s also something else at work. The presence of a shoulder, median, extra lane or higher speed limit can encourage people to use their phones more while behind the wheel.
Rural roadway characteristics
They found that certain physical road characteristics contribute to rural distracted driving:
- Shoulder width
- Median width
- The number of lanes
Researchers said that certain road geometrics provide drivers with a sense of safety, citing rural roadways that feature a shoulder and median or that include a wide shoulder and median. When drivers have that sense of security, they are more likely to use their phones.
Urban roadway characteristics
They found that this same principle was in effect on urban roadways – physical roadway features that help provide a sense of safety also tend to encourage drivers to text, check social media, and engage in other dangerous phone-related activities.
Researchers also found that on urban interstates and freeways, traffic volume and access controls (the areas where drivers merge onto or exit the roadway) contribute to a sense of safety that allows or encourages drivers to become less alert and less cautious.
The irony is clear: when the physical characteristics of roadways help drivers to feel safe, those feelings of security encourage phone use that then puts those same drivers at significant risk of causing a violent crash that can result in serious injuries or fatalities or both.
Researcher Xiaoqiang “Jack” Kong said the study was conducted with use of the driving data from a phone app that promotes defensive driving, the Texas auto accident database and the state’s road inventory.
Kong urged placement of “more visible signs and law enforcement” in areas where urban roadways “have higher distracted crash occurrences.” He said countermeasures can both improve traffic flow and safety.
The study was published in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention.