Distracted Driving: Stats, Laws, Prevention

Posted July 7th, 2016 by Ashley Kane

These days, we’re all attached to our smartphones. Most of us spend an average of 50 minutes a day on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger and that’s not counting all the additional time we spend online elsewhere. However, drivers shouldn’t be doing any of that behind the wheel. Distracted driving is dangerous—and deadly. 

What Is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving is any activity that prevents a driver from completely focusing on driving. The CDC divides distraction into 3 main types:

  1. Cognitive: mentally distracted, a driver’s mind is not focused on driving
  2. Visual: visually distracted, a driver’s eyes are off the road and looking elsewhere
  3. Manual: physically distracted, a driver’s hands are off of the wheel

Understanding Distraction - Distracted Driving

(Image source: AAA)

Examples Include:

  • Texting
  • Calling or dialing
  • Eating or drinking
  • Using any cell phone app, checking email or posting to social media
  • Talking to other passengers
  • Setting up a GPS system
  • Playing Pokémon GO 
  • Using any type of dashboard infotainment system
  • Brushing hair, applying makeup or any other type of grooming
  • Adjusting the radio, seat or side mirrors

Some of the actions above involve all 3 types of distraction, making them even more dangerous to do behind the wheel.

Research and Statistics:

Here are the latest studies and statistics about distracted driving.

  • Over 8 people are killed each day, and 1,161 are injured in crashes that involve a distracted driver.
  • Most drivers appear to care about safety on the roads in theory, but not as much when they’re physically behind the wheel: 61% of drivers don’t think their state does enough to stop distracted driving, yet 55% admit to using their phone behind the wheel in the past 30 days.
  • Drivers can NOT multitask. Walking and drinking water or chewing gum involves a “thinking” and a “non-thinking” task, while driving and conversing or texting are both thinking tasks.

Distracted Driving - thinking and non-thinking tasks(source: NSC)

  • Sending a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. If driving at 55 mph or above, that’s the same as traveling the length of a football field.
  • Unsafe mental distraction can last for 27 seconds after completing a distracting activity, such as texting, dialing via voice command or adjusting the radio.
  • Based on the miles drivers are distracted on the road each year, Americans could take 4.5 million trips around the world without looking up from their phones.
  • Driving while using a cell phone leads to impairments as significant as driving drunk (with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%).
  • At any moment during the day, there are over 660,000 drivers operating cars while using handheld cell phones.
  • Hands-free is not risk-free. Drivers talking on handheld or hands-free cell phones are 4 times as likely to be in an accident.
  • As of the most recent data, at least 10% of fatal crashes and 18% of injury crashes reportedly involve distracted drivers.
  • Reaction times nearly double when a driver is reading or writing a text message. Thus, motorists are slower to react to road hazards.
  • About 87% of drivers admitted to engaging in at least one risky behavior behind the wheel. Nearly 42% admit to reading a text message or email behind the wheel, and 32% admit to typing or sending a text in the last month before surveyed.
  • Because drivers typically travel at low speeds in parking lots, many drivers think it's safe to drive distracted or "multi-task" while driving in such an environment. However, 1 out of every 5 accidents occurs in a parking lot and 66% of drivers may be pulling into shopping centers distracted. Parking lots have a lot of hazards—blindspots, pedestrians, young children—so vigilant caution should be taken there, not less.
  • Missing sleep is also dangerous. Missing 1-2 hours of sleep doubles your crash risk

Fast, Free Auto Insurance Quotes

Toughest Distracted Driving Laws:

Most states now have distracted driving laws. The only states without laws are Arizona and Montana, though many counties in those states have decided to enforce their own bans.

Other states ban only texting or have partial bans for bus drivers and young drivers. Violations of any of these distracted driving laws vary in severity. Many will result in fines or license points.

The toughest law for texting and driving is in Alaska, where a first-time offense may cost you up to $10,000 and one year in prison. If there is an accident and someone is injured, the maximum penalty increases to $50,000 and 5 years in prison. In Oregon, Indiana, Mississippi, Marylandand Louisiana, texting and driving may result in up to a $500 fine. In California, a first offense may cost you only $20.

New York’s texting law may soon become harsher with the Textalyzer bill. The proposed law would allow police officers to operate a device, similar to a breathalyzer, that checks to see if a driver has been texting or using their phone. The law would be the first of its kind, and would likely catch more distracted drivers. The current fine for distracted driving in New York is between $50 and $200, though an additional surcharge fee can be as high as $93. 

New Jersey also has a proposed law that many are calling the harshest distracted driving law. The proposed law has a very inclusive definition of distracted driving. Essentially, the law would give police officers the right to issue summons to drivers for any “unrelated to the operation of the vehicle, in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle.” Some say this would mean police officers could pull drivers over for simply taking a sip of coffee or water. The interpretation of the law would be up to the officer and a first offense could cost drivers between $200 and $400.

In 2017, Washington, Oregon and Texas will consider stricter distracted driving laws. Some states, like Iowa, have a secondary offense law, which means they can only issue a texting or distracted driving ticket if the driver is pulled over for a first offense. While the success of these laws in stopping the behavior is currently being questioned, distracted driving tickets can be costly upfront and could affect your auto insurance as they may result in a higher risk profile.

Laws May Not Be Enough:

Due to the wide variety of distracted driving laws, it’s difficult to measure how effective they are in stopping cell phone use behind the wheel.

The GHSA states that “there is no evidence that cell phone or texting bans have reduced crashes.” If that's true, we may need other methods to prevent distraction behind the wheel. 

Yet, other studies have found that states with laws do have less car-crash related hospitalizations. Some believe they positively influence young drivers, but not enough research has been done on either side to be conclusive. What we do know is that violations and fines operate by forcing drivers to follow the law. However, pushing people to change their behavior may not be as effective as other methods.

How to Stop Distracted Driving:

Driver behavior needs to change in order to end the distracted driving epidemic. Laws help enforce driving behavior, but the most successful way to end distracted driving may be to start with drivers who want to change first.

The key is education. Do your part to learn about the reckless and avoidable nature of distracted driving. Beware the dangers, spread the word and check your own driving skills. You may be surprised to find out that you’re not as safe of a driver as you originally thought. Motivate yourself to change your driving behavior and work to improve with tips. 

Distracted driving will end when drivers decide to change their behavior. Technology, laws, and friends and family are here to help.

  1. Educate: Research, statistics, awareness, defensive driving classes
  2. Encourage: Technology (driving apps like EverDrive, Driver-Assist car tech), fellow passengers, family and friends
  3. Enforce: Laws, fines and violations can reinforce safe driving

Drivers can educate themselves, technology can encourage behavior, and laws can help enforce the change. Drivers that take on the personal responsibility will help end distracted driving on the roads and will support the Road to Zero Coalition—a partnership between the U.S. Dot and the National Safety Council to end all roadway fatalities within 30 years. Help educate those around you and work to end your own distracted driving behavior. Together, we can make safer roads.