The Dangers of Distracted Driving

Distracted driving.

Cases involving distracted driving having risen sharply over the past two decades. In 2018, around 400,000 injuries and more than 2,800 fatalities were caused in the US due to drivers being distracted. While there are other forms of distraction, including eating and drinking, the use of handheld devices to talk, text, or navigate, is the most common reason drivers take their eyes and mind off the road.

Over the years, tougher laws and penalties have been put in place to deter people from distracted driving. What’s more, technology has improved such that devices themselves can help users avoid things like texting and entering navigation instructions while driving.

In this post, we discuss more statistics surrounding distracted driving, the laws in place, and some tips to help ensure you stay safe on the road.

Distracted driving facts and statistics

According to the US Department of Transportation, there are three types of distracted driving: visual, manual, and cognitive.

  • A visual distraction is something that causes you to look away from the road.
  • Manual refers to taking your hands off the steering wheel.
  • Cognitive distractions are those that involve something that causes you to lose focus on the task of driving.

Texting while driving is one of the most dangerous forms of distracted driving because it hits on all three types of distractions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sending or reading text messages forces you to stop looking at the road for around five seconds. Driving at 55 mph, you can go the length of a football field within this time.

Here are some more important facts and statistics surrounding distracted driving:

  • The 2,841 people killed in 2018 in the US due to distracted driving included more than 1,700 drivers, over 600 passengers, 400 pedestrians, and 77 cyclists. (Source: NHTSA, 2018)
  • More than 15 percent of drivers aged 18–24 admit to texting while driving. (Source: The Zebra, 2020)
  • One-fifth of young drivers claim to not be at all familiar with their state’s laws regarding texting while driving. (Source: The Zebra, 2020)
  • 21 percent of teen drivers who were involved in a car accident were driving distractedly due to cell phone use. (Source: Carsurance, 2020)
  • Having one additional passenger in the car doubles the probability of a teen driver being involved in a fatal accident. (Source: Carsurance, 2020)
  • Women are more likely to text and drive than men. (Source: Carsurance, 2020)
  • In the US, distracted driving causes around nine fatalities per day. (Source: Carsurance, 2020)
  • A crash takes an average of three seconds to occur once a driver has been distracted. (Source: Carsurance, 2020)
  • Texting while driving increases the risk of a crash by 20 times (Source: Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 2009)

Note that it’s difficult to collect accurate data with respect to the true number of cases of distracted driving. This is largely due to the fact that many drivers conceal device use, such that it can’t be detected by law enforcement officers. What’s more, due to privacy laws, it’s difficult for law enforcement to gather phone records or other data that could prove someone was using a device at the time of an accident.

Distracted driving laws and penalties

Countries across the globe have responded to the increased prevalence of distracted driving by tightening laws and imposing stiffer penalties. Here are some countries’ takes on distracted driving:

US

In 2001, New York was the first state to institute a ban on hand-held phone conversations while driving. There are now similar bans in 23 states and partial bans in six other states. Partial bans vary in their nature. For example, in Wisconsin, the ban only applies in highway construction areas. In Arkansas, it applies to school and highway work zones and at all times for drivers aged 18–20.

Map of states were a handheld while driving ban is in effect.
States with a full or partial ban on using handheld devices while driving. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Cellphones are completely banned in some states for some drivers, including young drivers (39 states) and school bus drivers (22 states).

Texting while driving bans are more widespread, with all states except Montana and Missouri placing an outright ban on text messaging while driving. Montana has no ban at all while Missouri bans texting for drivers aged 21 years or younger.

The penalty for distracted driving is typically a fine, in some cases administered in conjunction with demerit points added to the driver’s record. However, these penalties vary greatly depending on which state you’re in. For example, in California, the penalty for texting while driving is a $25 fine, or $50 for a second offense. In Alaska, texting while driving is a misdemeanor and a violation could result in a $10,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

Australia

For drivers in Australia, it’s illegal to text or email while driving. Phone calls are allowed but only if the device is not being held by the driver, and making a call doesn’t require the driver to manipulate the device physically in any way, for example, by pressing a button. This also applies to emergency calls.

If a device is being used for GPS purposes, it must be securely affixed to the vehicle in a mounting that is designed for that purpose. Motorcyclists are not allowed to use GPS devices, including mobile phones, that are strapped to their arm or another body part.

The penalty for using a mobile device while driving is around $500 AUD and three or four demerit points, depending on the specific activity.

Canada

Canada’s distracted driving laws vary by province but generally, the laws prohibit drivers from using a handheld communication device to text or dial while driving. However, you may touch a device in the event of an emergency in order to call 911.

You can use a GPS device but you can only program it using voice commands while driving. As in Australia, the law stipulates that the device must be securely mounted to the vehicle (or built into the dashboard).

The penalties for distracted driving vary too, and may include fines up to $1,200 CAD, up to six demerit points, and a license suspension lasting up to 12 months.

Other activities such as drinking, eating, smoking, grooming and reading are incorporated in some provinces’ distracted driving laws. In other provinces, they are part of careless or dangerous driving laws.

UK

For UK drivers, it’s illegal to hold a phone or sat nav (GPS device) when driving a car or riding a  motorcycle. You can talk on the phone provided access is hands-free and the device doesn’t block your view.

You can use a handheld device while driving if it’s an emergency and you need to call 999, but only if it’s impractical or unsafe to stop first.

The punishment for breaking these laws is up to six penalty (demerit) points and a fine up to £200. Drivers who have recently passed their test (within the last two years) may also lose their license. Some cases may be taken to court, where drivers could be fined up to £1,000 (£2,500 for lorry or bus drivers) or banned from driving.

Apps to prevent distracted driving

It sounds counterintuitive that an app could help you avoid distracted driving, but there are a few that could be useful.

Drivemode and Drivemode Dash

(Android and iOS)

Drivemode distracted driving app.

The idea behind DriveMode is to allow you to use your phone while driving but with as few distractions as possible. This app integrates many of your favorite platforms, including map, music, and messaging apps, so that you can control them via voice commands and large buttons. It works with Google, Waze, Spotify, Poweramp, WhatsApp, Slack, Google Assistant, and more.

Note that some of Drivemode’s functions do require manipulation of the device (button tapping and screen swiping), which may still constitute distracted driving depending on your region.

Drivemode Dash is the iOS version of Drivemode. This app is quite different from its sibling, mainly because iOS is more complex to manipulate than the Android operating system. It has a more simplistic interface and doesn’t offer as many app integrations, but you can still use it for a range of tasks including sending texts, placing calls, starting navigations, and more.

AT&T DriveMode

(Android and iOS)

This is basically an out-of-office app for your cellphone. Once your car is traveling at more than 25 mph, the app will automatically send a reply (that you customize) to any incoming messages, including texts, emails, and wireless calls. The app will turn off once the vehicle has slowed to below 25 mph for five minutes.

Down for the Count

(iOS)

Down for the Count app.

The Down for the Count app provides an incentive for drivers to drive safely. Aimed at young drivers whose parents or relatives will pay for peace of mind, this app enables you to create a safe driving “campaign.” You essentially set a goal for time or distance travelled without using your phone. Once you reach your goal, you get access to a gift card paid for by your sponsor.

EverDrive

(Android and iOS)

Geared towards learner drivers, EverDrive is currently only available in a few states (Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Alaska, and Idaho), but the concept behind it is pretty neat. The app will assess your driving based on several criteria, including speed, phone use, acceleration, braking, and cornering.

EverDrive then helps you improve your driving based on feedback and may enable you to save up to 30 percent on your auto insurance.

TrueMotion

(Android and iOS)

TrueMotion distracted driving app.

TrueMotion is another app aimed at parents of teen drivers, but it’s a nifty tool for the whole family or even a group of friends to use. It assesses driving behavior based on a variety of factors including phone use, speed, and acceleration. Drivers are ranked and results can be shared with the whole family or group.

The app comes with a couple of additional features to help parents monitor their teens. It will provide location information, and claims to be able to determine what mode of transport is being used and whether or not the app user is driving.

Waze

(Android and iOS)

The popular navigation app Waze isn’t specifically designed for safe driving, but it does have a feature that can help users stay focused. Once the car is moving, it won’t accept any typed instructions unless you confirm you are a passenger in the car.

How to report distracted driving

Knowing the dangers of distracted driving, it can be frustrating to see others engage in this risky practice. Thankfully, you’re not powerless to do anything. You just need to make sure you don’t put yourself in danger while reporting distracted driving.

If you believe there is imminent danger, you should report the incident by calling 911 (or other local emergency number). Be prepared to provide as much information as possible about the vehicle description as well as its location and direction of travel. If you’re driving, have a passenger make the call or pull over before calling 911.

If there is no imminent danger, you can still report distracted driving. Ideally, you will have a license plate number or even the driver’s name to report to police. Since it’s not an emergency, you should call your local law enforcement agency directly. In some regions, for example, in New Jersey and Colorado, there are dedicated numbers for reporting dangerous driving. Some local police departments will have an online form you can fill out to report such activity.

Image credit: “People Ride” by StockSnap licensed under CC BY 2.0

Avatar Written by: Aimee O'Driscoll

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