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I'm the good driver, you're the bad driver

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Mon August 22, 2011
A new survey finds many drivers rate themselves as safe drivers, but admit to risky behavior.
A new survey finds many drivers rate themselves as safe drivers, but admit to risky behavior.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Survey: Many people claim to be good drivers despite admitting to risky behavior behind the wheel
  • Psychologist: People blame own behavior on outside influences, but call others "jerks"
  • Official: More laws with penalties needed to encourage safe driving

(CNN) -- Katy Chamberlin says she's a better driver than most people she sees on the road. The San Francisco human resources specialist believes she's more observant than the average driver, noting that she's never caused a traffic accident, but has been rear-ended twice by drivers who she thinks were texting.

Yet when asked about speeding, driving tired or texting at traffic lights, she comes clean.

"I have been that person who does not realize the traffic has moved forward because I was texting, or had to suddenly slam on the brakes because I was not aware that traffic had stopped," says Chamberlin, 41. "Which totally takes away from me saying how observant I am. When this has happened, I put my phone away and think about how stupid it was to be texting while driving."

While most Americans say they are good drivers and rate others as poor drivers, it appears they're in a state of denial. Two-thirds of drivers interviewed for a recent Allstate survey rated themselves as excellent or very good drivers, but many admit to unsafe driving practices that put them and others on the road at risk:

Forty percent admit to driving more than 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, with men more likely to speed than women (48% versus 30%).

Almost half (45%) have driven while very tired, to the point of nearly falling asleep.

Fifteen percent have driven while intoxicated, with men much more likely than women to have driven drunk (23% of men versus 6% of women).

About one-third (34%) have sent a text message or e-mail while driving, but the tendency changes by age: Drivers 18 to 29 years of age are the most likely to text while driving (63%) and ages 30 to 44 are very likely to text (58%).

Over half report having received a speeding ticket or other moving violation. Of those drivers who have gotten a ticket, 44% say they have received three or more tickets. More men than women get tickets (61% versus 46%).

Why do we blame other people for driving badly but excuse ourselves for the same behavior? Psychologist Chris Allen says it's not unusual in driving or other behaviors.

"When we do something 'bad,' say run a red light or pass dangerously, we tend to make an external attribution, such as 'Well, I was late for a doctor's appointment' or 'I was distracted by something,''' says Allen, a psychologist in Syracuse, New York. "When someone else drives poorly or we hear about it, we tend to make an internal attribution about the person's character, such as 'He must be a bad driver' or even 'What a jerk.'"

"We blame our own behavior on circumstance and we blame others' behavior on general characteristics," she says.

Focusing on educating drivers isn't enough, because most people get into their cars every day and don't crash, so they don't worry about occasionally running a red light or texting, says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group financed by the insurance industry. But that attitude can be deadly. "We end up with over 30,000 people dying in motor vehicle crashes every year" and hundreds of thousands more injured, he says.

Passing more state laws to restrict teen driving, allowing officers to pull over people who aren't wearing seat belts, and enforcing existing laws are what works, say driving experts. Technology to enforce red light laws and prevent cars from bumping into each other at low speeds also makes driving safer.

"We'd like to see people to pay more attention to their driving," says Lund. "But ultimately we need to find ways to help people do that through (legislation) and through vehicles with new technology that is intended to bring drivers back to reality when we need to."

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A federal official believes the fear of tickets, fines or jail will make people drive more safely..

"Thanks to a combination of targeted public education efforts by the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, strong state laws, and effective law enforcement, the number of traffic fatalities fell to historically low levels in 2010," says NHTSA administrator David Strickland.

"While education alone won't solve our nation's traffic safety issues, national campaigns like 'Click It or Ticket' make the case that we can have a significant impact on driver behavior and improve safety on the nation's roadways by engaging in public outreach efforts alongside good laws and enforcement. Recent studies by DOT and NHTSA on law enforcement for distracted driving in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York, further underscored the effectiveness of this formula."

Driving instructor Mark Edelman sees the need for enforcement on the road. Edelman was teaching a high school student in the car last week when they saw a driver make a sudden left turn from the center lane, giving the driver in the left lane no time to avoid an accident.

These accidents are avoidable, says Edelman, who teaches for the Safety Council of Palm Beach County in Florida. He finds that problems arise when drivers multitask in the car. Stop reading the newspaper, texting and talking on the phone while driving, he says.

"Give your undivided attention to your driving when you decide to get behind the wheel -- and I'm talking undivided -- and follow the rules of the road," says Edelman.

People who multitask are wrong to assume they're doing all of their tasks well, says John Rooney, professor emeritus of psychology at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

"Research evidence shows clearly that those who multitask while driving do not devote their full attention to driving; instead they alternate attention between the two tasks," says Rooney. "People often believe that their ability to multitask demonstrates that they are highly skilled drivers. Actually, it shows that they do not realize the kind of attention that safe driving requires."

Philadelphia public relations executive and Army veteran Neil Gussman believes he's a good driver and tends to drive right at about the speed limit, but he admits to blaming other drivers for their driving and having sent texts while waiting at a red light. "I can drive very safely and carefully, but sometimes I don't," says Gussman, 58. "If someone follows me too closely I immediately think it's rude, but then I remember I do that when I am in a hurry."

Gussman, an Army veteran who re-enlisted in 2007 and was deployed to Tallil Air Base in Iraq, believes strict enforcement helps. Gussman rode his bike on base in Iraq and worried occasionally about rocket attacks, but never about getting hit by a U.S. military vehicle. "Bad drivers get busted by their commanders," he says. "Hitting a bicycle on post would have been a career-ending move for a sergeant or officer."

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