What, Exactly, is “Distracted Driving”?
Being a safe, careful driver can already be difficult even without any significant distractions. Driving while distracted makes driving more difficult and, most importantly, more dangerous. Distracted driving is driving while engaging in any behavior that could potentially take your attention away from the most important area of focus: the road in front of you. Like reckless driving, driving while distracted is a huge mistake. It endangers not only yourself, but also any passengers you may be carrying, nearby pedestrians, and other drivers.
What Kinds of Distractions Are There?
In the context of driving, there are three key forms of distraction to make sure to avoid. These are:
- Visual distractions, which involve moving your gaze away from the road
- Cognitive distractions, wherein your mind is not focused on driving
- Manual distractions, when your hands are not on the wheel as they should be
Many real-life distractions can involve multiple kinds of distraction. For instance, texting and driving involve all three. That’s why, when you think of distracted driving, it’s probably the first thing that comes to mind. There have been numerous campaigns against texting and driving. Because it requires you to look at a screen, type using your hands, and think about what you’re writing, texting and driving is the most serious form of distracted driving, to be sure. But there are other ways that distraction can manifest for drivers, all of which may also have serious (even life-threatening) consequences. These include:
- Looking at sights outside your car
- Listening to music, including using your radio, phone music player app, MP3 player, or CD player
- Taking care of your appearance— fixing your hair, checking your makeup in the mirror, etc.
- Holding a cell phone conversation, even hands-free—this is still a risky distraction
- Trying to retrieve an object (e.g. from your glove compartment) while driving
- Eating or drinking
- Reading maps or other materials
- Conversations with passengers
- Watching videos
- Dealing with strong emotions
Distracted Driving Statistics 2020
Understanding the serious danger posed by distracted driving is a crucial part of minimizing, and eventually ending, the problem. Statistics can help to illustrate the severity as well as the consequences of this major safety threat. Here are some of the most notable statistics regarding the subject:
- According to federal studies, more than 3,000 people die each year as a result of distracted driving. Even more alarming, safety experts say that this is a very low estimate. (source: Bloomberg)
- During periods of daylight, at any given moment, one estimate states that roughly 660,000 drivers in the United States are using cell phones or other electronic devices while driving. (source: NHTSA) Another estimate says that over 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone on a handheld cell phone at any time during daylight hours. (source: NCSL)
- In the year 2014 alone, car crashes involving distracted drivers killed 3,179 people and injured 431,000 people. (source: gov) And in 2015, crashes involving distracted drivers led to the death of 3,477 people, and injured 391,000 people. (source: NCSL)
- From 2013 to 2014, the percentage of drivers who were text messaging or otherwise manipulating handheld devices like cell phones went from 1.7 percent to 2.2 percent. (source: NHTSA)
- Over the last decade, more and more drivers have been using smartphones. From 2011 to 2014 alone, the percentage of drivers who stated that they owned smartphones increased from 52 percent to 80 percent. Within that group, people over the age of 40 have experienced the highest levels of growth in their smartphone ownership. (source: State Farm)
- A survey on distracted driving by Erie Insurance in 2015 found that one-third of drivers would admit to texting while driving, while three out of four drivers stated that they had seen others doing so. (source: Erie Insurance)
- Shockingly, that same Erie Insurance survey also found that drivers will even brush their teeth or change their clothes while driving. (source: Erie Insurance)
- On average, if you’re texting while driving, you’re taking your eyes off the road for about 5 seconds. During those five seconds, if you’re driving at 55 miles per hour, you can drive the entire length of a football field— all without looking at the road. (source: S. Department of Transportation)
- Tasks known as visual-manual subtasks associated with portable devices such as cell phones, which include grabbing a phone to text or to dial a phone number, increase the danger of being in a car crash threefold. (source: Virginia Tech Transportation Institute)
- The effect of using a cell phone (handheld or hands-free) on a driver’s reaction time is very severe, even as severe as drunk driving in some cases. It delays drivers’ reactions to the same degree as a blood alcohol level of .08 percent. (source: University of Utah)
Graphs Showing Trends in Driver Cell Phone Use and Crashes from 2005 to 2018
Statistics on Distracted Driving Among Teenagers
Teenagers are particularly susceptible to distracted driving—thus, it’s crucial to educate both teenagers and parents on those serious risks. In fact, education is so important that some experts on the issue think that it could be more effective in addressing the problem than even sanctions. So here are some key statistics on this aspect of the issue:
- Among drivers ages 15 to 19 years old who were involved in fatal car crashes, 10 percent were reported distracted when these crashes occurred. This is the age group that are most often distracted when the crashes occur. (source: NHTSA)
- According to a study by AAA, the most serious cause of distraction for teenage drivers is the use of electronics. (source: NCSL)
- Although young drivers are only engaging in night time driving about 20% of the time, crash fatalities for adolescent drivers occur at night half of the time. (source: Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD))
- Each additional passenger in the car with a teenage driver increases the risk of a car crash. (source: SADD)
Distracted Driving Laws
Laws about distracted driving vary by state as well as locality, approaching the problem with different kinds of legal strategies and methods of enforcement. Here are some notable examples of laws regarding distracted driving:
- In 21 states, as well as Washington DC, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, all drivers are not allowed to use handheld cell phones while driving. These are categorized as primary enforcement laws, meaning that officers issue citations to drivers simply for using a hand-held cell phone, even without the involvement of any other traffic offenses. (source: GHSA)
- There are no states that ban all drivers from using cell phones across the board. However, 39 states, as well as Washington DC, ban novice drivers from using cell phones. (source: GHSA)
- Additionally, 20 states and Washington DC do not permit school bus drivers to use cell phones while driving. (source: GHSA)
- Text messaging while driving is banned almost across the board, in 48 states (plus Washington DC, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico). Of these states, just three lack primary enforcement for these laws. (source: GHSA)
- Every state but Connecticut and New Hampshire has one or more categories for distracted driving listed on police crash report forms, ensuring that distraction is noted when crashes occur. (source: GHSA)
- Some towns and cities include regulations for distracted driving on top of their State’s existing laws. Meanwhile, some states have preemption laws that prevent towns and cities from instituting specific bans on distracted driving behaviors. Such states include South Carolina, Oregon, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, and Louisiana. (source: Teen Driver Source)
- In addition to electronic distractions, for which relevant laws have been established more recently, states have had bans on other, more long-standing forms of distraction for years. For instance, various states have banned behaviors like reading, writing, personal grooming (e.g. shaving or applying makeup), and interacting with pets while driving. (source: FindLaw)
- More general laws against distracted driving do not name specific activities, but instead, describe rules for behavior while driving. In general, these kinds of laws define distracted driving as follows: driving while doing anything that isn’t required for operating the vehicle and/or while engaging in activities that inhibit the driver’s ability to focus. (source: FindLaw)
Where to Find More Info on Distracted Driving Laws by State
GHSA also offers a list of details on each state’s distracted driving-related laws, including hand-held bans, all cell phone bans for school bus drivers and/or novice drivers, and text messaging bans. The AAA Digest of Motor Laws also provides a more detailed list of state-specific laws on distracted driving in the United States. And for even more information on distracted driving laws in your state, check out the Governors Highway Safety Association’s (GHSA’s) list of State Highway Safety Offices, and contact them if needed.
Tips to Avoid Distracted Driving
Our primary goal is to reduce the prevalence of distracted driving, so we’ve assembled some useful tips for avoiding driving distractions:
- According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), beginner drivers should not drive between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., as these are the highest risk driving times.
- Use any vehicle controls (e.g. mirrors, radios, heating and air conditioning, and the like) before you start driving, or once you are done and have parked.
- Whenever possible, do not have your cell phone out while you are driving. Instead, let calls go to voicemail, and wait to make calls or send text messages once your car is parked.
- Do not fix your appearance or check your reflection in the mirror while driving.
- Anytime you do need to use your cell phone while driving, wait to do so until there’s an appropriate place to pull off the road and park your car.
- Especially with younger drivers, try not to have many passengers in the car. As described above, for teenagers, having more passengers in the car increases the risk of car crashes. That is why the NTSB recommends that novice, young drivers holding provisional licenses should have restrictions on their number of passengers. Specifically, without an adult driver over the age of 21 to supervise, those with provisional licenses should carry only one passenger under the age of 20 until they have an unrestricted license, or until they have been driving for 6 months—whichever period of time is longer.
- While driving, never reach down next to or behind the seats, retrieve items from the glove compartment, and so forth. Remember: your hands should remain on the wheel, and your eyes should stay on the road.