Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new study highlights just how big a problem distracted driving has become, especially for the group of people most addicted to their smartphones. "Phone addicts are the new drunk drivers," Zendrive concludes bluntly in its annual distracted driving study.

The big picture: The continued increase in unsafe driving comes despite stricter laws in many states, as well as years of massive ad campaigns from groups ranging from cell phone carriers to orthopedic surgeons.

"They hide in plain sight, blatantly staring at their phones while driving down the road," Zendrive says in the study.

And it's a growing problem. Over just the past year, Zendrive, which analyzes driver behavior for fleets and insurers, said the number of hardcore phone addicts doubled, now accounting for one in 12 drivers.

If the current trend continues, that number will be one in five by 2022.

"I'm sad and concerned," Zendrive CEO Jonathan Matus told Axios. "It's frightening how common distracted driving has become and how as a society and as individuals we are okay with the 'new normal'."

Some sobering stats about "phone addicts" behind the wheel:

  • On any given trip, they physically touch their phones four times more than the average driver.
  • As a result, they spend six times longer watching their screens.
  • Their eyes are off of the road for 28 percent of their time spent on the road.

What they're saying: Just listen to what some of the survey respondents had to say about their own practices.

  • “I wish I was better at not being distracted by wanting to constantly change songs...I do not text and drive, but I like to FaceTime my friends while driving since it makes time go by faster.”

As with other groups of dangerous drivers, many phone addicts believe they aren't a problem, with 93% describing themselves as "safe" or "extremely safe." In the few seconds you look at your phone on the freeway, your car will have traveled hundreds of yards.

"We found that while people are almost universally aware that distracted driving is incredibly dangerous, those same people largely dismiss their own contributions to the problem," Matus said. "Almost all our respondents thought they were safe drivers, but were willing to admit that they use their phones in the car all the time, signaling a cognitive disconnect between knowing the risks and taking action."

Methodology: The data on phone use comes from 4.5 billion miles driven by 1.8 million Zendrive users between November 2018 and January 2019. As for the attitudes, those came from a survey of 500 non-Zendrive customers.

The bottom line: It's a reminder that for all the angst over autonomous vehicle safety, there's vast room to improve upon highly fallible — and increasingly distracted — human driver.

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