It's not a scientific survey, Betty Bradtmiller acknowledges up front, but a clue to how preoccupied we've become behind the wheel.
Counting drivers at intersections the last five or six years, her driver education students found 73 percent – nearly three of four – distracted in some way, said Bradtmiller, owner-manager of Safeway Driving School in Fort Wayne.
The guy playing a harmonica; a girl reading a paperback; the semi driver on a cellphone veering into a student driver's lane.
“We had to go off the roadway a little bit to avoid the semi, and I look up and he's texting,” Bradtmiller said.
Cellphone use is far worse than people imagine, according to Zendrive, a San Francisco startup that tracks phone use for auto insurers and ride-hailing fleets. The company estimates 69 million drivers use their phones each day, according to survey results it posted last month. At any given hour, 40 percent of drivers use their phones at least once on average, Zendrive reports.
“As you have more young drivers on the road, and as people increasingly become addicted to their smartphones, it will continue being a major health issue – almost an epidemic – in this country,” Zendrive founder Jonathan Matus told Bloomberg.
From December through February, Zendrive technology monitored 4.5 million drivers who traveled 7.1 billion miles, comparing the results with the year-earlier period, Bloomberg reported. Roughly two of three of those people used a mobile phone while driving at least once. The average use was almost four minutes – a 5 percent increase from last year, according to the news agency.
Indiana drivers were the 14th most distracted among the states and District of Columbia, according to the study. While driving, Hoosiers use cellphones 6.58 percent of the time on average. Mississippi drivers were the worst at nearly 8 percent of the time, according to Zendrive.
Phone use increased dramatically across the country, including in 14 states that have banned handheld phones behind the wheel, Bloomberg reported. Phones were being used more often in California, Oregon and Washington, where lawmakers drastically strengthened regulations last year, allowing only hands-free use of mobile phones. Vermont was the only state in which Zendrive recorded a decline in drivers on phones.
Indiana State Police data show a slight increase since 2016 in crashes due to phone use, though they remained less than 1 percent of all crashes. There were 1,087 wrecks in 2016 in which a phone was a contributing or primary factor. The number climbed to 1,100 last year.
Still, many cases can go unreported because a driver causing a crash while using a cellphone is hard to prove.
In Fort Wayne, distracted driving is not usually a primary cause of a crash, said Lt. Tony Maze, who oversees the police traffic division. Rather, an incident report is most likely to say the driver was following too close in a rear end collision, he said.
“I think it's probably out there more than it's reported, based on the type of crashes,” Maze said.
Distracted driving, including the use of cellphones and other devices, was a contributing factor in 244 Allen County collisions in 2015, Maze said. Such crashes increased to 303 in 2016 and dropped to 270 last year.
A sampling of Fort Wayne police incident reports involving driver cellphone use can be repetitive: a driver on a phone rear-ends the vehicle in front.
“I asked him about the phone and he told me he had it in front of him on speaker phone,” a March 2 report of a crash at Spy Run Avenue and Lawton Place states. “I pointed to the crash and explained it appears he had been distracted by it. He agreed.”
A driver traveling south on St. Joe Road and approaching Stellhorn Road on March 8 received a text message. She “advised she looked down at her cell phone & did not see V2 (vehicle 2) sitting at the red light. (She) advised that is when she rear ended V2.”
Indiana law prohibits drivers from typing a text or email message, or transmitting or reading such messages unless they use hands-free or voice-operated technology. Drivers are free to call 911 to report an emergency.
A 2015 law prohibits people younger than 21 from using a cellphone, or in the law's language a “telecommunications device,” when driving.
But the laws are hard to enforce, Maze said. A driver has to be clearly under 21 to be pulled over, which can be hard to gauge, he said. And without a driver's consent, state law requires officers to obtain a search warrant to confiscate a phone.
“We can ask, but we can't take your phone away from you to verify one way or the other if you're being truthful or not,” he said. “I can't just take your phone and look at your (call) history.”
Bradtmiller, who has taught driving for 43 years, and James Clouse, a driving instructor for 12 years, say distracted driving has gotten worse.
Teenagers say they want to be safe, but after a couple of years many “throw caution to the wind and just don't care,” Clouse said.
Clouse, who works for the Driving Academy, with offices in Fort Wayne and Greenwood, doesn't see much hope unless police are given more leeway to stop suspected phone use.
“Unfortunately I think it's a sign of the times,” he said, “and I don't see it getting better unless they go to an all-out wall that says you're not allowed to drive and use your phone.”
Bloomberg contributed to this story.