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‘Zoom zombies’ zone behind wheel after video calls, warn auto safety experts

As millions of Americans spend hours at a time in video conferences – and then jump in their cars – many find it difficult to stay focused, leading experts to fear that this zoning due to cognitive overload is contributing to an increase in the number of road fatalities.

“Once you get in your car, you might be using autopilot,” said Joan Claybrook, a former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “I think using the computer in general can overwhelm you.”

Mental strain, combined with how driving skills have atrophied for many people over the past year, is “likely a contributor to the increase in road fatalities,” said Sam Abuelsamid, analyst. Principal Automotive at Guidehouse Insights.

A new study from Root Insurance found that 54% of 1,819 adult motorists surveyed said they had difficulty concentrating on the road after video conferences.

The younger the driver, the more serious the problem. For Gen Z motorists, 65% said they lost their concentration while driving, compared to 61% for Millennials and 48% for Gen X.

“Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the way we interact with our vehicles,” said Alex Timm, Founder and CEO of Root Insurance, after the company released its distracted driving awareness survey. “While many have abruptly switched to a virtual environment, Americans’ reliance on technology has increased dramatically with their screen time, leading a majority of drivers to wear this distracted behavior in their vehicles. “

Distracted driving has been a growing problem, in general, according to safety regulators and advocates, being blamed for at least 10 percent of annual road deaths. Just looking at a smartphone to read a text message means a driver’s eyes are off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, according to an NHTSA study. At 60 miles per hour, a vehicle travels over 400 feet during this time, creating a dangerous situation, especially in heavy traffic. Numerous studies have shown that the speed of highways has increased sharply during pandemic lockdowns.

“The distraction problem is huge and it’s not just a matter of checking emails or texts,” Russ Rader, an official with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told NBC News. “There is a risk of cognitive distraction, watching the road while your thoughts are elsewhere. This zoning can mean that you don’t notice a dangerous situation early enough to react. “

While it is difficult to analyze a precise blame, it is clear that the number of US highway fatalities rose sharply in 2020, even as the number of miles traveled by US motorists fell sharply.

Preliminary data indicates that as many as 42,060 people were killed in road crashes last year, the National Safety Council reported last month. Based on kilometers driven, this represents an increase of 24%, the largest year-over-year increase since 1924.

About 64% of U.S. motorists surveyed admitted to checking their phones while driving, according to the Root study, and 53% of respondents said they check their phones within the first 15 minutes behind the wheel – while they are should try to focus on driving. .

“Many Americans have perfected their use of technology and their ability to multitask during the pandemic – but living room skills don’t translate into driving,” said Timm. “When drivers get back on the road, they need to recognize the dangers of false confidence in order to protect themselves and their passengers.”

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