Driving is an essential part of modern life for millions of Americans. From the daily commute to running errands, driving has become a necessity for how we live, with 91% of U.S. households in 2021 owning at least one vehicle (U.S. Census Bureau). But in recent years, U.S. roads have become more dangerous. Reports of reckless driving and distracted driving have increased, with more drivers engaging in hazardous behaviors.
But what do reckless driving and distracted driving exactly mean? The terms are often used interchangeably, but they refer to different types of dangerous driving behavior — behavior that contributes significantly to the thousands of crashes that occur on roadways each year.
Distracted Driving vs. Reckless Driving
Distracted driving occurs whenever a driver engages in activity that takes their attention away from the road. This typically includes texting, talking on the phone, eating, changing the music or adjusting the GPS — but any activity that distracts someone behind the wheel is considered distracted driving. The rise of technology has played a considerable role in this — as cell phone usage caused 12% of distraction-related fatal crashes in 2020 (NHTSA).
Reckless driving, on the other hand, involves driving with disregard for both traffic laws and the safety of others on the road. This often means excessive speeding, running stop signs and red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating and other life-threatening driving behaviors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, reckless driving surged due to empty roads and has worsened since (Washington Post).
While both reckless driving and distracted driving are dangerous, each pose their own risks on roadways. Distracted driving is a form of negligence often remedied by eliminating distractions and encouraging drivers to focus on the road. Whereas reckless driving is often an intentional behavior that deliberately puts other roadway users at risk.
But it’s not always this distinct. Distracted driving is often categorized as reckless driving, especially as distracted drivers often fail to maintain their speeds and end up inadvertently driving faster than the posted speed limit, putting them in reckless driving territory. Despite the frequent overlap, both behaviors typically require different solutions to remedy each behavior.
How can you prevent reckless driving and distracted driving on your roadways?
As traffic safety professionals, it’s our responsibility to continue to improve the safety of our roadways and save lives. But outside of enforcement, penalties and laws against unsafe driving behavior, how can you combat reckless and distracted driving in your community? The fight against these unsafe driving habits has become more prevalent in recent years and is relatively uncharted territory given the rapid advancements in technology and unexpected continuation of pandemic-era driving habits. Each community faces its own unique issues depending on a variety of factors, such as infrastructure, lack of modern traffic technology, and varying effective solutions. That being said, we’ve rounded up some of the most common countermeasures below.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin recently conducted a case study on the effectiveness of speed awareness trailers against reckless driving. The city deployed a Radar Speed Trailer on a road that had recently undergone a road diet but was still seeing excessive speeding. With the trailer deployed, Milwaukee saw a 54% reduction in reckless driving — but general speeding decreased as well, with a 48% reduction in the overall number of speeding drivers.
Enhanced Pedestrian Safety
Reckless and distracted driving has increasingly become a problem for pedestrians, especially in urban communities that see higher numbers of vulnerable road users than suburban and rural areas. Lower posted speed limits can often create a false sense of security, where drivers often check their phones or become impatient with the posted speed limit. But these actions can be deadly for pedestrians. The survival rate of pedestrians drops drastically with even small increases in speed. In fact, a 5% chance of fatality at 20 mph spikes to 80% at 40 mph (NHTSA).
Between higher speeds and in-car distractions, standard crosswalks can be difficult for drivers to notice until it’s too late.
Additionally, 75% of pedestrian fatalities occur at night, according to the GHSA. And communities have begun to instead opt for crosswalk systems that employ the use of lighting, whether through warning alerts or crosswalk illumination, to catch the attention of approaching drivers and allow for safe pedestrian travel. In fact, RRFB Pedestrian Crosswalk Systems have been proven to increase driver yield rate by as much as 90%.
Sometimes, infrastructure is part of the problem. For instance, wider roads can encourage speeding. And crosswalks can be difficult to see at busy intersections. Across the country, communities are beginning to identify common issues with infrastructure in order to re-design them to improve safety for all road users.
Speed humps, traffic circles, raised crosswalks and road diets are just a few ways communities are making changes to increase driver awareness and calm traffic. But every community faces unique problems when it comes to reckless and distracted driving, which may require different solutions. For example, Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been particularly affected by the national uptick in reckless driving.
Many Milwaukee drivers utilize extra road space and bike lanes to pass illegally on the right. The city’s countermeasures include curb extensions, physically dividing bike lanes with bollards, raising the lanes and reversing the bike and parking lanes.
The idea of slow streets has emerged in recent years and was initially popularized by the pandemic when cities restricted cars from select streets to allow pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users access instead. Now that traffic levels are back to normal, more accessible streets are being implemented by cities prioritizing the safety of vulnerable road users, especially when it comes to protection against reckless and distracted driving.
Slow street programs — sometimes also called active streets — typically limit traffic volume and prioritize active transportation for vulnerable road users. The programs often employ a mixture of traffic calming measures such as speed humps, lower posted speeds (5-15 mph) and pavement markings to indicate shared spaces. While many slow streets were intended as a temporary program to utilize outdoor spaces during the pandemic, many communities are continuing or restarting programs with the intention of making them permanent.
While some recent technological advancements have proven dangerous when it comes to everyday travel — such as taking video calls while driving or adding a stop to the GPS — technology also has the capacity to improve roadway safety. Connected vehicle technology gives vehicles the capacity to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles to keep drivers informed of potential hazards and road conditions in real time — such as notifying them of an activated school zone crosswalk or an active wrong-way driver. This technology can help remind drivers to remain alert on the road, while also prioritizing the safety and mobility of all roadway users.
When it comes to reckless and distracted driving, choosing which countermeasures to implement ultimately depends on your community’s needs. If you’d like to learn more about how to protect your community or are interested in receiving a quote on TAPCO’s available countermeasures, reach out to a TAPCO representative.
TAPCO | Product Manager
With over a decade in business development, marketing and product management, Robert strives to improve transportation safety through innovation.
He is a pedestrian safety solutions expert who especially enjoys working with the TAPCO family to develop lifesaving products and solutions, such as the SafeWalk® Crosswalk Illuminator.