Most Americans Drive While Distracted But Few Admit It, New Survey Shows

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Distracted driving behaviors are prevalent on America’s roadways. They are also dangerous and deadly. MoneyGeek surveyed 1,000 adults ages 16 and up to gain insights into distracted driving behaviors. When viewing the survey alongside existing statistics about distracted driving, such as fatality rates, we can gain a more complete picture of what's happening on the road and what's happening in drivers' heads.

  • 29% of drivers in the survey indicated that they’d had been in a crash (10%) or almost been (19%) due to technology-related distracted driving on their part or another person's.
  • An estimated 700 people per day are injured in distracted driving accidents. (National Safety Council)
  • More than 3,000 people died in 2019 due to distracted driving accidents. (NHTSA)

Drivers know distracted driving is dangerous yet still do it. They even overestimate its deadly effects. Yet, they still engage in unsafe behaviors behind the wheel and underestimate their own levels of distractedness on the road.

  • 33% of drivers in MoneyGeek's survey admitted to browsing apps, and 40% admitted to texting or emailing on their phone while driving.
  • Yet 90% of survey respondents said they were rarely (50%) or never (40%) distracted while driving.
  • Drivers estimated that 69% of car crashes in the U.S. are caused by distracted driving in our survey.
  • 14% of accidents are due to distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (NHTSA)

Mobile phones are particularly risky to use when behind the wheel because they can be auditory and visual distractions to drivers.

  • 8% of distracted driving injuries, or 33,000, were caused by drivers using their cell phones in 2018. (NHTSA)
  • 41 states have laws banning cell phone use for at least some drivers. Only one state (Montana) has no distracted driving laws on the books. (Governors Highway Safety Association)
  • 39% of high schoolers text or email while driving (CDC). MoneyGeek's survey suggests that’s on par with the rest of the population (40%).

Self-driving safety features may keep us safer if drivers stay vigilant.

  • Experts indicate that self-driving features such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning can save lives related to distracted driving.
  • 74% of Gen Z drivers indicated they felt self-driving related safety features made safer drivers. Boomers show less confidence that these features improve safety (52%).
  • Gen X and some older Millennials (35-44) have the highest belief that self-driving features make drivers complacent (49%).
  • Distracted driving behaviors increased by 50% for a group of drivers, when self-driving features were engaged an AAA Foundation study found.

Drivers Say They Aren't Distracted, But...

In MoneyGeek's survey drivers reported engaging in a wide variety of distracting behaviors. Respondents were asked if they engaged in these behaviors never, rarely, occasionally, frequently or almost always. The survey found that one-third (33%) of drivers reported browsing apps on their phones while driving, and 40% indicated that they text or email on their phones.

It's also worth noting that this finding, when viewed alongside a CDC study that revealed that 39% of high schoolers text or email while driving, reveals that older drivers and younger drivers alike share this distracted driving habit. While teen auto insurance rates and driving statistics such as teens are three times more likely to be in a fatal crash, this dangerous driving habit is not necessarily the sole cause.

According to NHTSA, cell phones were to blame for approximately 33,000 car accident-related injuries in 2018, or about 8% of all distracted driving-related injuries.

Handheld cell phone use while driving has declined from 5.2% in 2012 to 3.2% in 2018, but nearly 10% of drivers used some type of phone, including hands-free devices, to text or talk on the phone. Handheld cell phone use has increased 1,500% between 2005 and 2018.

Though smartphones may present the most egregious distractions, a majority of drivers in the MoneyGeek survey admitted to distractions that may seem more innocuous but can also increase the chance of getting into an accident. Our survey showed:

  • 62% of drivers talk on the phone while driving.
  • 67% of drivers eat while driving.
  • 88% of drivers look at their GPS for directions while driving.
  • 90% of drivers change the radio station while driving.
  • 95% of drivers speak with passengers while driving.

Despite the high incidences of engaging in distracted driving behaviors, 90% of drivers said they rarely or never drive while distracted in our survey.

Distracted Driving Is a Blind Spot for Drivers

Distracted driving is a form of inattentional blindness or selective attention. Research has shown that when people are focused on one task, they can completely miss unexpected events. Worse, when suffering from inattentional blindness people are unaware of their lack of awareness — they think they are actually aware.

Distracted driving can come in several forms:

  • Visual: Taking your eyes off the road — such as to check your GPS or turn around to tell your kids to stop fighting — can increase your risk of an accident.
  • Manual: Taking your hands off the wheel — such as to change the radio station or to try and catch your phone if it falls — can put you at risk of losing control of your car.
  • Auditory: Hearing loud noises — such as music blasting inside the car or construction outside the car — can cause distractions.
  • Cognitive: Taking your mind off driving — like daydreaming or making a mental list of your tasks for the day — can be just as dangerous as other types of distractions.

In a seminal experiment, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons found that when participants were asked to count how many times players in a video passed a basketball to one another, more than 50% of study participants didn’t notice when a gorilla walked through the scene. Most people who missed the gorilla didn’t believe it was even possible that it had appeared.

MoneyGeek’s survey results were consistent with these findings. Of survey drivers who had never seen the gorilla test before, 45% did not see the gorilla in our survey.

The implications of this selective attention test are clear — and unnerving — for distracted driving: if you’re focused on anything but driving, you can miss dangers on the road and not even realize you’re at risk.

Drivers Recognize the Risks (When They Aren't Driving)

Respondents in MoneyGeek’s survey estimated that 69% of car crashes are due to distracted driving. In fact, that figure is much lower, according to NHTSA. In 2018, 14% of all car crashes involved a distracted driver; 15% of injuries and 8% of deaths resulted from distracted driving.

When asked about their experiences with distracted driving risks:

  • **10% **of drivers indicated they had been in a crash because they or another driver was distracted by technology.
  • 19% had almost been in a crash because they or another driver was distracted by technology.
  • 27% had felt that they were in danger due to a technology-related distraction.

Self-Driving Cars Makes Driving Safer and Drivers More Complacent

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of drivers in the MoneyGeek survey felt that driver safety technologies — such as lane centering, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking or other self-driving features — improve driving safety. But on the downside, 43% of respondents felt that these safety mechanisms make drivers more complacent.

There's evidence that these features do make drivers complacent. A 2019 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report found that a group of drivers utilizing “adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance at the same time resulted in a 50% increase” in secondary task management, a fancy way of saying not focusing on driving. Another group of drivers less familiar with these features actually displayed more distracted driving when the features were NOT engaged. The study's authors speculate that as drivers become more comfortable with self-driving features they are more likely to let their attention wander.

Younger Drivers Are More Enthusiastic About Self-Driving Technologies

Younger respondents are more likely to feel that self-driving features make drivers safer. 74% of Gen Z respondents (from 16 to 24) indicated that they felt self driving features made drivers safer. Alternatively, 52% of respondents 55 and older felt that these features made drivers safer.

Gen X respondents (35-54) were most likely to feel that self-driving features made drivers complacent. 49% of 35-44 year olds felt these features made drivers more complacent. 33% of 17 to 18-year-olds felt these features made drivers complacent.

Experts Are Hopeful About New Technologies

“Technology, at least in terms of phone use, has gotten us into this bind,” said Joel Feldman, Esq., MS, founder of EndDD.org. “But technology might help us get out of it.”

Joe Young, director of media relations at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), agrees.

“Crash avoidance technologies show enormous potential in reducing crashes that may result from inattention or distraction,” Young said. Forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning and rear automatic braking all show promise in insurance data, according to Young.

“Drivers are imperfect and make mistakes, but these technologies can assist or intervene during moments of distraction,” Young said. “IIHS recommends that consumers shop for as much safety as they can afford when selecting a new vehicle, both in terms of crashworthiness and crash avoidance technology.”

Technologies that automatically switch your phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode while driving, new car features that allow voice commands and driver monitoring technology may also reduce driver distractions and contribute to decreases in distracted driving accidents.

Distracted Driving Impacts More Than Just Those in the Car

In 2018, more than 2.7 million people were injured in auto accidents. Of those, approximately 400,000 (15%) were injured as a result of distracted driving, according to NHTSA.

NHTSA also reported that approximately 1 in 5 people who died in distracted driving crashes were not in a car; they were pedestrians or riding their bikes or otherwise outside the vehicle driven by the distracted driver.

The National Safety Council reports that an estimated 700 people are injured per day in distracted driving-related accidents.

Despite state laws against texting or using cell phones in virtually every state, distracted driving fatalities increased by more than 9% between 2018 and 2019, according to MoneyGeek’s analysis of distracted driving rates by state . Our analysis also showed that New Mexico, Kansas and Kentucky had the highest rates of distracted driving fatalities in 2019. And Virginia and Illinois had the most significant increases in fatalities from 2018 to 2019.

What the Experts Say: How to Reduce Distracted Driving

Experts agree that preventing distracted driving accidents requires a combination of distracted driving laws, enforcement of those laws and education about the dangers.

“Laws can help change behavior,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, MLPA, senior director of external engagement at the Governors Highway Safety Association. “But for these mandates to be effective, new research published by the Transportation Research Board, in partnership with GHSA and NHTSA, indicates they need to clearly define when and how a cell phone can and cannot be used and have penalties and fines that are in line with other traffic citations.”

Publicizing and enforcing these laws, such as through spotter patrols, are also critical to reducing distracted driving.

“I don’t think you can write enough tickets alone to do away with the problem,” said William Jenkins, the law enforcement liaison with the Vermont State Highway Safety Office. “And there’s always going to be people that need to be reminded with enforcement, so I think education alone doesn’t do it either.”

The most powerful strategy may be a cultural shift that makes distracted driving socially unacceptable, according to EndDD’s founder, Joel Feldman.

After Feldman’s own daughter was killed by a distracted driver, he viewed distracted driving as dangerous and irresponsible. But he’s not convinced that approaching the issue with that lens is the most effective way to get people to think twice about engaging in them.

“I don’t believe that for seasoned distracted drivers talking about the danger is necessarily going to get people to put their phones down,” he said.

Instead, Feldman believes framing distracted driving as disrespectful and selfish may have more impact. “We're trying to make driving without distraction the right thing to do, the respectful thing to do, the treat-other-people-the-way-you-want-to-be-treated kind of thing to do.”

FAQs About Distracted Driving

Methodology

MoneyGeek’s survey of 1,000 respondents was fielded via Pollfish from March 18th to March 21st and weighted for national representation based on gender and age.

About the Author


expert-profile

Deb Gordon is author of The Health Care Consumer’s Manifesto (Praeger 2020), a book about shopping for health care, based on consumer research she conducted as a senior fellow in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government between 2017 and 2019. Her research and writing have been published in JAMA Network Open, the Harvard Business Review blog, USA Today, RealClear Politics, TheHill, and Managed Care Magazine. Deb previously held health care executive roles in health insurance and health care technology services. Deb is an Aspen Institute Health Innovators Fellow, and an Eisenhower Fellow, for which she traveled to Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore to explore the role of consumers in high-performing health systems. She was a 2011 Boston Business Journal 40-under-40 honoree, and a volunteer in MIT’s Delta V start-up accelerator, the Fierce Healthcare Innovation Awards, and in various mentorship programs. She earned a BA in bioethics from Brown University, and an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School.


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