Image: Driver on cell phone © BananaStock, Jupiterimages

The road has always been a dangerous place. But today's drivers report being more scared than ever, even as the rates of fatal crashes in the United States drop to record lows.

The source of that heightened fear -- and anger -- is hardly a surprise: It's other drivers. You know, them -- the selfish ones, the lane-blocking ones, the failing-to-signal ones. And now those drivers seem to be even more enamored with their phones and other gadgets, at the expense of everyone else's safety and car insurance rates.

In a Texas Transportation Institute survey, four-fifths of drivers there say cellphone use has gotten worse in the past five years. By a wide margin, drivers even in such a fiercely libertarian state support bans on cellphone use while driving.

The AAA says that more than half of U.S. drivers surveyed in 2010 reported feeling less safe than they did five years earlier, a 17% jump from the year before. Nearly half blamed driver distraction. Most want stricter laws prohibiting cellphone use behind the wheel.

In this brave new world, it's very possible to be an aggressive, dangerous driver without ever exceeding the speed limit, getting into an accident or racking up driving violations.

Dialing a phone while driving triples the risk of a crash, according to AAA data, while simply talking increases the risk by 30%. The U.S. Department of Transportation attributed 16% of auto fatalities in 2008 and 2009 -- a total of 11,312 deaths -- to distracted driving.

But here's where driver surveys get interesting, and where they shed light on what's often overlooked in discussions about fear and rage on the road: Those other drivers are us.

Do-as-I-say drivers

In poll after poll, the same drivers who complain about what others do admit to engaging in the same behavior.

  • A Pemco Insurance survey of Washington drivers found that nine out of 10 believed left-lane campers were a problem, but only 9% admitted to lane-blocking themselves.
  • In the AAA survey, two-thirds of drivers said they used a cellphone behind the wheel in the past month. One-third admitted to doing so regularly.
  • Nationwide insurance found last year that nearly half of drivers said they received texts and emails while driving, and more than 80% did so while stopped in traffic. Sixty percent of those with DVD players admitted to operating the units while driving.
  • According to a study by Allstate, seven in 10 drivers say they've braked or swerved hard, missed a traffic signal or caused an accident because they were distracted.

"In poll after poll, we see instances where people recognize that these are risky behaviors, yet very significant numbers, when you ask, 'Have you done X in the last month?' say, 'Yes,' " says Peter Kissinger, the president and CEO of AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety.

AAA calls it the "do as I say, not as I do" factor.

It's not you, it's me

Do we think we simply chat while driving less often than those other drivers? When we see others doing it, do we forget that we're guilty ourselves? Or do we just think we're more adept than others?

Yes on all counts, say researchers.

"We call it the self-serving bias," says Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and co-author of the book "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving."

This unconscious bias is hardly limited to the road. Most of us, particularly in individualistic countries like America, rate ourselves as above average in intelligence, work ethic, physical aptitude, character, even purity.

In one 1997 survey that gauged personal morality, 87% of those polled said they were likely to get into heaven themselves, but only 79% thought Mother Theresa would be granted entry.