#DistractedDriving: How Social Media Habits Are Making Roads More Dangerous

One of the many negative effects of social media is that this around-the-clock obsession is leading to a growing culture of bad driving habits, including those that could lead to injury or death.

Social media is bringing the world together like never before, providing an unparalleled platform for global interaction. One of the many positive effects of this technological evolution is that people are connecting in ways not possible a generation ago. One of the many negative effects is that this around-the-clock obsession with social engagement is leading to a growing culture of bad driving habits, including those that could lead to injury or death.

Driving while under the influence of social media

We’re supposed to keep our eyes on the road while driving, avoiding such behaviors as fiddling with the infotainment system, applying makeup or buttering a bagel. Notably, each of these tasks falls under the “distracted driving” umbrella, which leads to more than 3,000 deaths each year, according to the federal government.

Perhaps the most egregious type of distractions, and those gaining the most momentum in recent years, are behaviors related to social media. Indeed, recent research from AT&T reveals that nearly four in 10 smartphone users engage in social media while driving.

Facebook is the most common application used while driving (one-quarter of people polled fessed up to it), while one in seven admit to using Twitter while behind the wheel.

If we haven’t done it ourselves, we’ve witnessed someone who has: reading Facebook updates while in motion, tweeting about traffic conditions, sharing photos on Snapchat, posting a sunset photo to Instagram, taking a “car selfie” on the way to a special event and even engaging in gaming social networks. (A number of car crashes have been a result of drivers playing Pokemon Go.)

The engagement in social media while behind the wheel has become so ubiquitous, and even accepted, that the hashtag #whiledriving has gained popularity, most commonly accompanied by photos of the sky, sunset and clouds, taken from the driver’s seat. So not only are drivers distracted when they’re posting, they’re distracted taking that post-worthy photo to begin with.

Taking risks to go viral

In addition to people actually reading and engaging in social media while driving, the content posted to social media can further pose a threat to driver safety. Dangerous trends that virally spread on social networks are another twist to this modern technological landscape. Dangerous practices are filmed, then shared on YouTube, Dailymotion, Vimeo or Metacafe, potentially tempting thousands of viewers to try the antics at home.

Car surfing is one such practice, where passengers are filmed as they ride on the roof, along the side or on the back of the vehicle while in motion. In some cases, the person “surfing” is riding a skateboard or other object and is holding on to the car while it is moving.

Although the practice predates the internet, social media has supplied the fuel. In this case, YouTube is providing the platform for the dissemination of car-surfing videos. An ABC News investigative report revealed that more than 50 percent of car surfing incidents end badly; deaths can occur even when a vehicle is crawling along at five miles per hour.

Hanging up and staying safe

How dangerous is using social media while driving? Plenty dangerous. For example, sending just one brief text while traveling at 55 mph is equal to driving the length of a football field without having your eyes on the road the entire time, according to government research. Just imagine what could happen in that time span. Now add to that the time it would take to snap a photo of the sunset, add a caption and a hashtag and post it to Instagram. The consequences are dire.

Thankfully, innovators are recognizing this problem and coming up with solutions.

A number of apps are available that disable a device’s functionality while in motion in the vehicle, preventing the temptation and the ability to engage in distracting behavior while driving (at least of the mobile-device variety).

In addition, mobile carriers like AT&T (with its “It Can Wait” campaign, which also encourages users to sign a pledge) and Sprint offer applications that disable certain device capabilities, blocking text messages, sending auto replies and locking the screen, while still allowing access to things like music and navigation.

While texting and driving continues to be a serious issue on our roads, its dangers are highly visible thanks to public-awareness campaigns (and state laws). But we must keep in mind that texting is not the only threat to driver safety. Our virtual social lives can pose a danger to ourselves and our fellow drivers, so we must put the phone down and focus on the road.

Matt Keegan is an automotive journalist and CARFAX contributor, where he writes about technology’s impact on car buying and everyday driving. He also manages Auto Trends Magazine, a website offering new car reviews, industry information and advice.