They make us swear and swerve. The drivers who whiz by, eyes glued to their phones, tapping text messages, maybe a little tipsy, oblivious to the danger they pose to themselves and other motorists.
But don’t expect any apologies. Ask these menaces about their driving and they rate themselves “above average” in driving safety.
That’s the alarming takeaway from a study of 1,750 drivers by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety presented at a conference Monday.
“We did not understand the high-risk driver,” said Mike Rugani, a researcher in the Office of Traffic Safety. “They see things and rationalize their behavior and continue to engage in it.”
About 1 in 6 Minnesotans is classified as a high-risk driver, defined by the department as a person who consumed two or more drinks and drove at least once or who engaged in two or more risky behaviors in the past 30 days. Risky behaviors include texting while driving, not wearing a seat belt or driving more than 10 miles an hour over the speed limit.
Nearly 40 percent of all drivers in the state admitted to at least one of these infractions in the past 30 days, according to the research presented Monday at the Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities in Chicago.
Also, 3 in 5 drinking drivers felt that they could handle drinking and driving, and so saw no problem with it. Nearly half of speeders felt the same way. On the other hand, most of those who drive without a seat belt or who text or use the Internet behind the wheel knew that they shouldn’t.
The results are alarming, yet hopeful, said Rugani, because they can lead to more effective messages and enforcement campaigns to curb dangerous driving.
“We needed to know why are they engaging in that behavior,” he said. “Once you know that, you can unlock some successful strategies.”
The study found that high-risk drivers overestimate how common risky behavior is and believe they are less likely than the average driver to be involved in a crash. Yet high-risk drivers were more likely than low- and moderate-risk drivers to have been in a crash in the past three years — and 50 percent more likely than low-risk drivers.
They also were more likely to have been cited for moving violations in the past three years, and were more likely to have had their license suspended at some point.
“People underestimate the risk they are facing; they say nothing is going to happen,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council.
High-risk drivers also are likely to be “competitive, stubborn, impatient and thrill-seeking,” the study found.
Roughly 1 in 7 drinking drivers feel that their behavior is fine and don’t fear either law enforcement or getting in a crash. Only 1 in 4 speeders said that they were more concerned about being in a crash, and another 22 percent said that they weren’t worried about either getting a ticket or being in a crash.
On the other hand, being in a crash was the primary concern for text/Internet users, among whom 84 percent said that they were more concerned about being in a crash than they were about getting a ticket.
“Of people who text and drive, almost 100 percent agree that their behavior is not safe and that impacts their driving,” Rugani said. “They say, ‘I know it is not good for me,’ but they still engage in that behavior. What a tough nut to crack.”
Improvement with age
Risky driving tends to decline with age. High-risk drivers had an average age of 38. Men accounted for two-thirds of high-risk drivers.
For those who shaped up, many mentioned enforcement (tickets, arrests, drunken driving offenses, etc.) as a motivating factor. In particular, those who had started wearing a seat belt said they were influenced by the recent change in Minnesota law upgrading the failure to wear a seat belt to a primary violation.
Hersman said the results reinforce that traffic officials must redouble their efforts through education, good laws and stronger enforcement.
“This is insight we have not had before, so how can we attack it?” Rugani said. “It really is figuring out how to influence drivers to make smart choices when they get behind the wheel.”