Fatal attraction for drivers: taking a "selfie" on the highway

Call it the last picture show: taking a mug shot of yourself while speeding down the interstate.

It's so stupid that you have to wonder why anyone would actually do it. But if you check out Instagram posts with hashtags like #DrivingSelfie, #SelfieWhileDriving or the ominous #HopeIDon'tCrash – the way that the website AutoInsuranceCenter recently did – you'll find there were almost 72,000 posts from drivers waiting for accidents to happen to "themselfies" during 2016. That doesn't include, of course, any others who happened to be in the car or on the road.

Despite repeated admonitions to drivers to stay off cellphones and the mounting number of laws against using cell phones while driving, Instagram postings while on the road are a fact of life – and, in some instances – death, rivaling opioids and other addictions. During the first four months of this year, there were 22,700 of these posts, putting selfies while driving on track for a bang-up year with at least 68,000 pictures of these drivers taken while doing something arguably immoral, probably illegal and undeniably idiotic.

The growing availability of Instagram, the cellphone and desktop internet-based application for photo and video sharing owned by Facebook, may be responsible for its misuse, according to AutoInsurance. It noted that Instagram has doubled its active user base in the last two years.

"Are more people distracted on the road because they now have a platform to share their morning commute, or were these drivers already multitasking while on the road, such as talking on their cellphone or eating on the run? "asked the website. There's no clear-cut answer – unless you perhaps text these drivers and ask them.

Whatever the answer is, "mayhem on the highways is a grim reality," said Robert Gordon, who heads policy development and research for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which pays the claims for many of these accidents.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The National Safety Council's fatality estimates show that 40,200 people died on the roads last year, up six percent from 2015, and the first time the annual fatality total has breached the 40,000 mark since 2007. And it's trending steadily upwards – 14 percent higher since 2014.

"Auto accident and death rates are skyrocketing, and car improvements don't offset their severity [as they have in the past]. Be careful out there," Gordon told a recent insurance webinar.

But that's contrary to what many drivers are doing. At any given time during daylight hours, about nine percent of them are talking on their cellphones, according to AutoInsurance, which surveyed more than a thousand U.S. drivers. Research shows that cellphones were involved in more than 25 percent of U.S. accidents, with about 23 percent of drivers simply talking, nearly 30 percent dialing and 47 percent texting or using an app.

Most agreed it was dangerous to use their apps, but did it anyway, and those most likely to use them "often" were between 18 and 24. Ironically, they were also one of the highest groups (95 percent) to say it was dangerous. The average age of people involved in cellphone-related fatal car accidents is now 19, but drops sharply after age 21. "This aligns with the fact that car accidents are the leading cause of death for American teens," said the survey.

So, just what happens when a teenage driver yanks out his or her cellphone to text or take a selfie? Do other teens in the car tell this driver to stop or do they jump out of the car at the next red light? The answer is no.

It does make most of these passengers – about three-quarters – nervous that the grim reaper could be waiting at the next bend in the road. But more than half will stay in the car and smile for the camera. Only 17 percent said they wouldn't ride with the driver. This in spite of the fact that more than eight percent of all drivers surveyed admitted that they had a close call when using a mobile app while driving.

The rationale for using an app while driving was pretty standard. "I'm stopped at a red light" was the main one, while stopped in traffic was next. Going slow summed up the justification for about 40 percent of the respondents, while nearly a fifth said it was OK if you were "on the highway" going (apparently) at any speed. Just 12 percent said that they never used their cellphone while driving.

About three quarters of respondents said it was OK to get directions during the drive, while more than half admitted to changing their music. Another reason given was to tell a friend, spouse or family member that they were either on the way, or going to be late.

When AutoInsurance ranked these "selfie" hashtags by state it found that western states such as Nevada, Utah and Wyoming ranked the highest, while Iowa and Mississippi were at the bottom.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.