Distracted driving is dangerous, claiming the lives of 3,142 people in 2020. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration leads the national effort to save lives by preventing this dangerous behavior. Learn the facts, get involved, and contribute to keeping America’s roads safe.
WHAT IS DISTRACTED DRIVING?
Distracted driving is defined as any activity that diverts attention away from driving, such as talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, conversing with passengers, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment, or navigation system — anything that diverts your attention away from the task of safe driving.
The most dangerous distraction is texting. Sending or reading a text message takes your attention away from the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s equivalent to driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.
You cannot drive safely unless you give your full attention to the task of driving. Any non-driving activity is a potential distraction and increases your chances of crashing.
Using a cell phone while driving increases the risk of death and injury on American roads. In 2020, 3,142 people were killed in car accidents caused by distracted drivers.
CELLPHONE USE BY DRIVERS
Using a cellphone while driving raises the risk of a collision. Researchers have consistently linked texting or other cellphone manipulation to increased risk. Some studies, but not all, have found that talking on a cellphone increases the risk of a car accident.
Drivers are not only distracted by cellphones and texting. Distracted driving is defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as any activity that could divert attention away from the primary task of driving. Distractions can include adjusting a radio, eating and drinking, reading, grooming, and interacting with passengers, in addition to using electronic devices. The crash risk associated with these other activities is unknown.
It is unclear whether prohibiting handheld phone use and texting reduces crashes. This is true even though IIHS research shows that hand-held phone bans reduce overall phone use. Crash rates have risen in recent years, but overall cellphone use has remained stable. Other than cellphones, drivers are distracted by other things, so prohibiting phone use will not eliminate distracted driving. Broader countermeasures, such as crash avoidance technology, that prevent drivers from becoming distracted or mitigate the consequences of distracted driving, may be more effective than cellphone bans.
CELLPHONE USE AND CRASH RISK
There are no reliable estimates of the number of distracted driving accidents. Naturalistic studies have provided the majority of our knowledge about cellphones and crash risk. Texting or otherwise manipulating a phone has consistently been linked to increased risk in such studies. There is conflicting evidence about whether talking on a cellphone increases the risk of a crash.
According to national police-reported data on fatal crashes in the United States in 2020, 3,142 people died in motor vehicle accidents where distraction was a contributing factor. This accounts for 8% of all crash fatalities. 396 of those killed on the roads, or 1%, were killed in crashes involving cellphone use.
Statistics based on police-reported crash data almost always understate the role of distraction in fatal crashes. Police crash reports aren’t a reliable way to count cellphone-related collisions because drivers don’t always volunteer that they were on the phone, and there’s often a lack of other evidence to determine drivers’ phone use.
Several studies on the effect of cellphone conversations have used data from over 3,000 drivers who were continuously monitored for up to three years between 2010 and 2013. Three of these studies, including one by IIHS researchers, discovered that talking on a cellphone significantly increased crash risk when compared to periods when drivers were not visibly distracted, though the risk was limited to drivers aged 16 to 29 in the third. Other analyses of the same data, on the other hand, found that talking on a hand-held cellphone did not significantly increase crash risk. This finding is consistent with an earlier IIHS study of 105 drivers’ cellphone use over a one-year period.
When it comes to texting or manipulating a cellphone, the evidence is clearer. According to the findings of a naturalistic study of over 3,000 drivers, the risk of a crash was 2-6 times higher when drivers were manipulating a cellphone versus when they were not distracted. When the age groups were examined, there was a significant increase in crash risk for drivers under 30 and drivers over 64.
Almost all experimental studies using driving simulators or instrumented vehicles reported that cognitive distractions associated with cellphone tasks influenced some measures of driver performance. Statistical analyses combining the findings of several studies found significant delays in drivers’ reaction time, but little or no effect of cellphone conversations on lane keeping, speed, or following distance.
An analysis of 28 experimental studies using driving simulators or instrumented vehicles found that typing or reading text messages significantly slowed reaction time, increased lane deviations, and lengthened the time drivers looked away from the road.
Cellphone use also has an impact on how drivers scan and process information on the road. Drivers typically take their eyes off the road to dial or manipulate a cell phone. Drivers engaged in cellphone conversations and other forms of cognitive distraction, on the other hand, tend to focus their gaze toward the center of the roadway, but their attention is still diverted from driving, making it difficult for drivers to process what they are looking at.
When drivers are cognitively distracted, brain activity associated with visual processing and attention is suppressed, according to researchers. As a result, cognitive distractions can cause “inattention blindness,” in which drivers fail to comprehend or process information from roadside objects even when they are looking at them.
Hand-held phone bans are common in other countries and are becoming more common in the United States. In 2001, New York became the first state to prohibit all drivers from using hand-held phones. Similar legislation is now in place in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
Texting while driving is prohibited in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Phone use bans are specifically targeted at young drivers in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
According to the IIHS, all-driver bans on hand-held phone conversations can have significant and long-term effects on phone use. Phone bans aimed specifically at young drivers appear to have less of an impact.
There is little data on how drivers are complying with texting bans. According to a 2009 IIHS survey of drivers, 45 percent of 18-24 year-olds reported texting while driving in states that prohibit the practice, just shy of the 48 percent who reported texting while driving in states that do not prohibit the practice. Texting was reported by 40% of drivers aged 25-29 in states with bans, compared to 55% in states without bans.
To increase compliance with cellphone and texting bans, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has conducted high-visibility enforcement campaigns in Hartford, Connecticut, Syracuse, New York, the Sacramento Valley Region of California, and the state of Delaware. Following the implementation of publicized, high-intensity enforcement of hand-held cellphone and texting bans, the number of drivers observed holding a phone to their ear decreased. Hand-held phone manipulation decreased significantly in Syracuse, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, following the enforcement initiative, but did not decrease in the comparison communities.
Some studies have found that hand-held phone bans have reduced crashes, but the evidence is not conclusive.
Early HLDI research found that hand-held phone bans and texting bans either had no effect or increased collision claims.
Later, the IIHS reviewed 11 studies on the effects of all-driver hand-held phone bans and texting bans on crashes, including the two HLDI studies, and discovered mixed results. Many of these early studies were carried out before smart phones became widely available.
A number of recent studies have found that states with hand-held phone bans have fewer fatal crashes. These studies, however, had methodological limitations and a wide range of estimated effects.
The IIHS looked at the relationship between rear-end crash rates and comprehensive cellphone bans in California, Oregon, and Washington, which prohibit almost all hand-held phone use. Hand-held phone bans in Oregon and Washington reduced rear-end collision rates significantly, but not in California.
TECHNOLOGY TO COMBAT DISTRACTION
Crash avoidance technology may be the most promising avenue for reducing crash risks associated with any type of distraction. If the potential for a collision is detected, warnings can redirect a distracted, inattentive, or sleepy driver’s attention back to the road. If a driver does not respond quickly enough or at all, some systems attempt to avoid the collision entirely.
Automobile manufacturers are incorporating “infotainment” systems into their vehicles, allowing drivers and other occupants to plug in or wirelessly connect portable electronic devices such as cellphones to vehicle entertainment and communication systems.
On the one hand, increased complexity of the vehicle’s center stack area has been linked to increased crash risk. Designers, on the other hand, are leveraging technology to implement systems that require less visual-manual demand. Automakers, for example, offer Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in collaboration with Google and Apple. These two systems enable drivers to connect their phones in order to use the vehicle’s built-in microphone and speakers, as well as view a simplified phone interface projected on the infotainment screen. Strayer et al. (2018) discovered lower levels of distraction when completing secondary tasks with Android Auto and Google CarPlay versus native systems designed by five different automakers.
Voice commands can be used to control many newer infotainment systems and portable devices. Several experimental studies have shown that when using voice commands, drivers take fewer glances away from the road and keep their eyes on the road for a greater proportion of the time than when using their hands, and this is true for both older and younger drivers.
However, not all voice systems are the same, and the benefits can vary. According to an IIHS study, drivers were able to place calls and enter addresses into a navigation system more quickly and keep their eyes on the road longer when using a system that used a single detailed voice command to complete the tasks, as opposed to a system that used multiple voice commands to navigate different menus. On the other hand, drivers make far more mistakes when entering an address using a single long voice command than when using multiple short voice commands.
Voice recognition technology’s impact on crash risk is unknown. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued voluntary guidelines for integrated infotainment systems in an effort to reduce the visual and manual distraction potential of these systems. The NHTSA has also issued similar voluntary guidelines to manufacturers of portable and aftermarket devices.
Phone apps that restrict or limit access to electronic devices have also been created. When a vehicle is in motion, these apps can silence the phone, redirect incoming calls to voicemail, or respond to text messages with a reprogrammed message.
In the fall of 2017, Apple introduced the Do Not Disturb While Driving feature. In a nationally representative survey of iPhone owners, IIHS discovered that only about one-fifth had the feature set to activate automatically when driving.
We can all contribute to lifesaving actions by putting an end to distracted driving.
We encourage teens to speak up when they see a friend driving while distracted, to have their friends sign a pledge to never drive distracted, to get involved in their local Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter, and to share messages on social media that remind their friends, family, and neighbors not to make the deadly choice to drive distracted.
Parents should first set a good example by never driving distracted, and then talk to their young driver about distraction and the responsibilities that come with driving. Make everyone in the family sign a pledge to drive without distractions. Remind your teen driver that in states that use graduated driver licensing (GDL), a violation of distracted-driving laws can result in a license suspension or delay.
Employers and educators
Employers and educators can also help. Spread the word about the dangers of distracted driving at your school or workplace. Ask your students to commit to distraction-free driving, or make distracted driving a company policy.
Make Your Voice Heard
If you are concerned about distracted driving, become a voice in your community by supporting local laws, speaking out at community meetings, and emphasizing the dangers of distracted driving on social media and in local op-ed pages.
Distracted driving laws are enacted by your state legislature and governor. Many states now have laws prohibiting texting, cell phone use, and other distractions while driving. You can learn more about your state’s laws by visiting the Governors Highway Safety Association.