Unsafe driving behaviors down, but motorists feel police won’t catch them

November 9, 2021

Tyson Fisher


A recently published AAA report reveals that more motorists are identifying unsafe driving behaviors as such, thereby reducing those behaviors. However, most drivers do not believe law enforcement will catch them in the act.

AAA’s 13th annual Traffic Safety Culture Index analyzes public engagement in unsafe driving behaviors. This year’s report, which analyzed behaviors from 2020, was “exceptional,” as AAA describes it. Motorists do recognize many known dangerous behaviors. However, there is a question of whether they respect those dangers when driving and how well police enforce the laws preventing those behaviors.

Texting is bad. Speeding? Not so bad.

In the report, AAA identified a dozen unsafe driving behaviors in four categories: distracted, aggressive, drowsy/impaired, and other. Although there is a consensus with most of the behaviors, motorists appear to have no issue with speeding.

Within the distracted category, about 95% of motorists surveyed identified reading, texting or emailing on cellphones as either extremely dangerous or very dangerous. More than three-quarters believe holding and talking on a cellphone is extremely or very dangerous.

However, when it comes to aggressive driving, there is less agreement about the severity of unsafe driving behaviors. At best, nearly 90% view driving aggressively (e.g., switching lanes quickly, driving very closely behind another car) as highly dangerous, with about 85% saying the same about driving through a red light.

On the other hand, only half of motorists believe driving 15 mph over the speed limit on the freeways is highly dangerous. Less than two-thirds view driving 10 mph over the speed limit as extremely or very dangerous.

Although the survey suggests motorists are relatively fine with speeding, government crash data suggest it is deadlier than they think. In June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that traffic fatalities in 2020 increased by more than 7%, despite a 13% decrease in vehicle miles traveled due to the pandemic.

NHTSA surmises that an increase in unsafe driving behavior, particularly speeding, likely contributed to the uptick in traffic deaths.

“NHTSA’s research suggests that throughout the national public health emergency and associated lockdowns, driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly, and that drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” NHTSA’s report states. “Traffic data indicates that average speeds increased throughout the year, and examples of extreme speeds became more common, while the evidence also shows that fewer people involved in crashes used their seat belts.”

AAA’s unsafe driving behavior report supports NHTSA’s claims. Another category that scored relatively low was the lone behavior in the “Other” category. About 79% believe driving without wearing a seatbelt is highly dangerous. Although that accounts for more than three-quarters of respondents, it is low compared to many other behaviors.

Other unsafe driving behaviors that receive a rating of less severe include using hand-free technology to use the phone. Only 20% find that behavior as extremely or very dangerous. Examples of that behavior include Bluetooth, CarPlay and Android Auto.

The percentage of motorists performing unsafe driving behaviors within the last 30 days has gone down across the board.

“Based on self-reported driving behaviors from our annual survey of traffic safety culture, it is encouraging to see more drivers recognize the danger of certain activities behind the wheel,” Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in a statement. “However, the ultimate goal is to see the majority of drivers form safe driving habits and practice them.”

Enforcement of driving laws a factor

AAA also looked into what it calls “perceived risk of apprehension,” a fancy phrase for “Will I get busted by the cops for doing this?” For the most part, drivers are under the impression they can get away with most everything.

Among all behaviors, less than half of motorists believe it is very or even somewhat likely the police will catch them. Meaning, most motorists think they can get away with unsafe driving behavior.

Motorists are most convinced they will get busted for drinking and driving, with about 48% finding that outcome somewhat likely.

Despite ranking the unsafe driving behavior low, 42% believe they will get caught speeding 15 mph or more over the speed limit on freeways, the second-highest behind drinking and driving.

Which behavior do drivers think they are most likely to get away with? Driving while high. Specifically, more than 70% believe it is unlikely the police will catch them driving within an hour after using marijuana.

For the most part, motorists support safety countermeasures to prevent unsafe driving behaviors. The only measures most disapprove of are speed cameras and laws against using hands-free technology to read or send messages. LL

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.