How to Avoid the Dangers of Distracted Driving and Stay Safe on the Road
Distracted driving seriously threatens personal safety. Beyond the immediate physical harm, it can also significantly increase your insurance premiums due to the heightened risk associated with such behavior.
It only takes a moment of distracted driving to cause a tragic crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that sending or reading a text at 55 miles per hour is like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. About nine people die in crashes involving distracted drivers every day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With 3,522 deaths associated with distracted driving in 2021, federal and state leaders are more proactive than ever to convince us to put our phones down and focus on the road. Only two states, Missouri and Montana, have a text messaging ban, and 30 states ban hand-held devices.
Distracted driving can also significantly impact your car insurance rates. Your provider will likely consider you a riskier driver if you have a citation. It’s good to understand the high toll of distracted driving and how to stay safe on the road.
What Is Distracted Driving?
Distracted driving is any activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. Our first thought when we hear distracted driving is texting, which is understandable, with 12% of all fatal distraction-affected crashes linked to cellphone use, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the definition of distracted driving includes multiple categories.
This type of distraction is when drivers take their eyes off the road, including both in-vehicle distractions and out-of-vehicle events — for example, looking at your GPS in the car or staring at a roadside crash.
A manual distraction occurs when a driver takes one or both hands off the wheel to do an unrelated task. This scenario includes eating, drinking, reaching for something or grooming yourself behind the wheel.
While we tend to forget the importance of listening when driving, auditory distractions are equally important and can cause us to miss sirens, warning honks or rumble strips. Auditory distractions include listening to something with earbuds while driving or reacting to a baby crying in the backseat.
When you’re driving, you have control of a 4,000-pound vehicle. Keeping your mind focused is essential. When your mind wanders off the road, you are cognitively distracted. Cognitive distractions include daydreaming, talking to passengers or talking on the phone.
Texting while driving is so concerning because it combines visual, manual and cognitive distractions. And, often, we’re trying to do it simultaneously with other destructive measures.
"Distracted driving has always been an issue," said Janet Ruiz, California representative of the Insurance Information Institute. "It used to be people doing their makeup and eating breakfast behind the wheel. Now people are doing their makeup, eating breakfast and using cellphones, so it's a larger concern today."
Top 10 Distractions on the Road
When you get behind the wheel, multiple elements compete for your attention. Knowing what distractions you face is important to recognize so you can work to ignore them. Here are the 10 most common distractions.
Texting is one of the most common distractions and is the most dangerous. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, about 90% of its respondents believed reading and typing while driving are extremely dangerous. Despite this perception, 36% of drivers reported reading a text, and 37% held and talked on a cell phone while driving.
Talking on the phone
A recent survey by the IIHS found that over 20% of U.S. drivers are using their phones or electronic devices at any given daylight moment. Even more drivers are using a hand-held or hands-free device. Despite our belief that these devices are safe, hands-free is not risk-free, according to the National Safety Council.
Eating or drinking
According to the NHTSA, 48% of drivers reported eating or drinking at least sometimes while driving. But it's not just the act of eating or drinking that's distracting. Activities related to these actions, such as picking food from a carton placed on the passenger seat or reaching over to throw out a used food wrapper, also divert attention away from the road.
Grooming, changing or cleaning clothes.
Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) found putting on makeup while driving increases your risk of a crash by three times. Changing a clothing item can be worse, as you are more likely to take both hands off the wheel and risk getting a hand stuck at a critical moment.
Reaching for an item
Reaching for an item in your car is, by far, one of the riskiest things you can do while driving. A VTTI study showed your crash risk increases by nine times compared to a focused driver.
Fiddling with your playlist, climate control or GPS
More and more vehicles include infotainment systems allowing easy access to navigation systems, music apps and personal assistant software. In 2020, 99% of new vehicles sold had digital display screens. Although easier to use than those old CD changers and hand-dial radios, these systems present new risks. National Security Council studies show these systems require more cognitive focus by taking your brain away from driving.
Although texting and talking on the phone are seen as more dangerous, talking with passengers is both an auditory and cognitive distraction. A VTTI study found talking, singing or interacting with a passenger increases your risk of a crash compared to a focused driver.
Driving with a pet
According to a AAA survey, the majority of drivers admit to engaging in risky behaviors when driving with their pets. The top distraction was petting their animal. Other distractions drivers admitted to include letting their pets move around freely in the car, having them sit in their lap, feeding them and even taking photos of them while driving.
Visual events outside the vehicle
Roadside distractions like crashes often lead to more accidents because those who take their eyes off the road can easily miss brake lights ahead of them. Other off-road distractions include billboards, amusement parks or wildlife.
We all intend to stay focused on the road, but research shows our minds wander 70% of the time when driving. To stay safe, drivers must remain aware of other drivers and pedestrians and respond quickly to events. Mind-wandering reduces the ability to do so.
Young Drivers Are Most Likely to Drive Distracted
Drivers 15 to 20 years old are more likely to be distracted than drivers of any age. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for American teenagers — sadly, 9% of deadly teen crashes involve a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teenagers are most at risk because they lack experience behind the wheel, making the slightest distraction more dangerous. “Teens have lots of distractions — cellphones, roughhousing, music — and the drivers themselves are all novice drivers and don't appreciate how difficult it can be to pay attention to the road,” said Russ Martin, state relations manager at the AAA Foundation. “Teen brains are still developing; have the highest crash risk and are just learning to drive. There is no need for them to have additional distractions. With every additional teen passenger in the car, the crash risk dramatically increases, too.”
Is Distracted Driving Worse Than Drunk Driving?
Both distracted driving and drunk driving are hazardous. Physician and University of Washington scientist Beth Ebel, MD, MPH, says you're 23 times more likely to crash while texting, equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.19%. That is more than twice the legal limit of 0.8% and is a risk comparable to driving while drunk.
Distracted driving is likely under-reported, while the number of deaths is higher from drunk driving. Alcohol levels can be tested and confirmed, while distracted driving must be self-reported in most cases.
Distracted Driving vs. Drunk Driving
- Yearly Deaths: 3,522
- Economic Costs: $98 Billion
- Yearly Deaths: 13,384
- Economic Costs: $58 Billion
State Laws on Distracted Driving
As cellphones became more commonplace in the early 2000s, states quickly reacted to safety concerns and introduced laws to prevent distracted driving:
- Forty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have a primary law banning text messaging.
- Two states have a secondary law on texting and driving.
- Twenty-four states ban all cellphone use while driving.
A primary law means you can be pulled over and ticketed for the action, but a secondary law means an officer can only cite you if you violated a primary offense first. "We are working on getting bans on texting while driving in all 50 states and the District of Columbia," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. The coalition has reservations about secondary enforcement bans. "We don't consider those optimal laws," she added.
Many states also have unique laws to address specific driving dangers, like distracted or drowsy driving. For example, Maggie’s Law in New Jersey categorizes sleep-deprived drivers as reckless drivers, allowing them to face vehicular homicide charges. Maggie McDonnell was 20 years old when a driver crossed three lanes of traffic and hit her car head-on in 1997.
Cellphone Driving Laws by State
While each state creates its own driving laws, many are similar. Distracted driving laws focus on texting, hand-held devices and young drivers. While many states ban texting, fewer ban all hand-held cellphone use. Young drivers face the strictest rules to limit distractions while gaining driving experience.
You can view the specific cellphone bans in your state using this interactive map with information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Penalties for Texting While Driving
If the police catch you texting while driving, you will face fines and penalties. Similar to the laws, these fines and penalties vary from state to state. Alabama has one of the cheapest penalties at $25 for a first offense, but in Alaska, you face a year in prison and a $10,000 fine the first time you text and drive.
These fines and possible jail time increase if you cause crashes. Prosecutors have some discretion when charging drivers for serious injury crashes, including vehicular homicide, if someone dies.
Graduated Driver’s License: Added Protection for Teens
Teenagers and new drivers are most at risk for severe crashes and accidents, so many states have implemented graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs. GDL programs introduce driving while under conditions that minimize risk. These restrictions differ from state to state but usually involve phone use, passengers and nighttime driving.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the first graduated driver licensing programs began in 1996, and since then, teenage crash deaths have declined by 57%. These programs and adult role models can help teen drivers be safer on the road and prevent crashes and accidents, especially around distracted driving. GDL programs are available in each state. It's important to note that each state has its laws and requirements. Check the resources provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to find out the specific regulations applicable in your area.
How to Prevent Distracted Driving
We all face multiple distractions on the road: visual, manual, auditory and cognitive. You can take action before and during your drive to stay focused and attentive behind the wheel.
Turn off your phone and put it away
You’re more likely to interact with your phone if it’s right in front of you or near you when it buzzes. It’s best to turn it off and stow it away to avoid the temptation of checking that latest social post.
Pull over to a safe place
If you simply can’t wait to text or call, find a safe place to pull over and reach for your phone. Pulling over on a busy road can be dangerous, so ensure you can safely pull completely off the road.
Take driver safety training
Suppose your distracted driving has already caused an issue. In that case, you can enroll in a driver safety training program through your state’s transportation department to help you learn better techniques for driving safely.
Consider the 3-second safe following rule
Distracted driving delays our response time to events on the road. Your risk is greater if you follow the car in front of you too closely. The 3-second rule allows you to respond fast enough to brake lights and prevent accidents.
Utilize smart vehicle technology
Newer cars with in-vehicle infotainment systems may offer distraction-prevention measures. For example, Ford's MyKey allows the owner to set up settings for all or specific keys. These customizable controls allow parents to set maximum radio volume levels, speed limits and a “do not disturb” mode.
Ask your passengers for help
Passengers can help or hurt your driving — establish boundaries before you begin driving to ensure your safety. You might ask them to speak quietly, assist with navigation or respond to important text messages or phone calls.
Before you put your car in drive, adjust your mirrors, put on your seat belt, choose your music and get your GPS ready. You should know where you are going, how you will get there and have any electronic devices set before you start driving.
Safely secure children and pets
Kids should ride in an age-appropriate child restraint system until they are at least eight years old. Learn your state’s laws regarding child car seats using the interactive map on Safe Ride 4 Kids’s website. Pets also have seat belt options and should never ride on a driver’s lap.
Safe Driving Technologies to Prevent Distracted Driving
There are a host of anti-distraction technologies and tools designed to help us stay focused and safe. Here are some that are making a difference:
Cell Phone Blocking Apps and Devices
These tools help drivers stay focused by limiting access to certain phone features when the vehicle is in motion. Apps like AT&T's DriveMode and Lifesaver lock the phone while driving and only unlock it once the car has stopped.
This app helps enforce custom policies to limit driver distraction caused by mobile device usage. It's a discreet solution that helps to curb driver distraction.
Drowsy Driver Alerts
Some cars come equipped with technology that senses your movements or lack thereof. With alarms and coffee mug icons on the dashboard, these systems attempt to alert drivers when they become drowsy or inattentive.
Safe Driving Apps
Apps like DriveSafe.ly read text messages and emails out loud in real-time, including shorthand, and can automatically respond without drivers touching their mobile phones. This helps drivers stay connected without taking their eyes off the road.
Vehicle Safety Systems
Emerging technologies continue to enhance the ability of vehicle safety systems to help avoid accidents caused by distracted drivers. These can include features like lane departure warnings, forward collision warnings and automatic emergency braking.
Although these technologies can help reduce the risk of distracted driving, they are not a substitute for attentive driving. Remember, safety is always the best policy when you're behind the wheel.
Technology is creating a new version of distracted driving named “automation complacency.” Automation complacency is when automated vehicles or self-driving cars allow drivers to over-rely on the car to prevent crashes. Because the car can take safety measures like forward-collision warnings, automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warnings, drivers may become dangerously complacent about their responsibilities behind the wheel.
According to the National Safety Council (NSC), a study discovered that using “adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance at the same time resulted in a 50% increase” in secondary task engagement. It also found an 80% increase in drivers engaging in visual or manual distractions compared with drivers who did not use the automated systems.
Banding Together to Prevent Distracted Driving
It will take all of us to prevent distracted driving and save 3,000 lives a year. Community leaders from the local, state and federal levels work every day to promote safer driving habits and implement initiatives to prevent distracted driving.
States and Local Communities
Many cities and state governments run public service announcement campaigns to create healthy habits like safe driving. These local municipalities work with businesses and nonprofits to advocate for distracted driving laws and training. For example, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital works in the local community to promote its SMART tips, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offers guides to help teenagers learn safe driving habits.
Employers and Worker Safety Agencies
Employers turn to the National Safety Council for guidance and best practices. It offers a Safe Driving Kit to build leadership support for smart cellphone policies. The NSC provides case studies like Sentinel Transportation which implements advanced driver assistance systems to monitor its commercial fleet.
Federal Safety Agencies
Responding to the alarming rise in traffic fatalities, the NHTSA began studying distracted driving and started campaigns to raise awareness. Working with the Department of Transportation, the NHTSA created the “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” campaign featuring graphic videos showing the consequences of texting and driving for teens.
There are several agencies committed to ending distracted driving nationwide. Many, like End Distracted Driving were started by parents whose children died due to distracted driving. Impact Teen Drivers is based in Sacramento, California and focuses on ending distracted driving as a leading cause of teen death. The AAA, Safe Kids USA, Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and many other groups in the U.S. and Canada have launched public outreach campaigns to get the message across that distracted driving kills.
School Districts and Institutions
Many high schools offer and promote driver’s education courses. These courses provide novice drivers with the knowledge and experience to create a safe driving foundation. Teen-specific courses focus on the dangers of distracted driving. Some, like Distractology, include driving simulations to show teenagers how distractions impact their driving.
Insurers can significantly promote safe driving habits by incentivizing good behaviors and driver safety training programs. They are also a key player in Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which supports enforceable laws to punish distracted driving. Insurance associations also support the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It studies and educates people about the dangers on the road, including distracted driving.
How Distracted Driving Impacts Your Auto Insurance
Distracted driving can impact auto insurance rates like most unsafe driving habits. To what degree your rates are affected depends on state regulations and if you cause an accident. A clean driving record is one of the best ways to reduce your car insurance costs. An accident is likely to increase your premiums.
"If an insurance carrier can prove you were distracted when the accident happened and you were the cause, then that's a factor (in determining your premium)," says Justin Klepado, claims service manager at CSAA Insurance Group. "We'll assess the cost to fix the damage, and that will be considered when renewing your policy."
Does Distracted Driving Increase Car Insurance?
Multiple factors determine your auto insurance rates, including your age, vehicle and driving record. If you cause an accident, it impacts your driving record, and you can become a risk factor for your insurance provider. How much your premiums might increase depends on your insurance carrier and the rest of your driving record, among other circumstances. If this occurs, it will help to shop around and compare quotes for your most affordable options.
"If you receive a citation for improper driving and that gets reported and recorded on your DMV record, that's a factor insurance carriers use to determine if you are a high, low or medium risk driver, and it will impact your premium," says Klepado. One citation alone may not change your premium, but it can.
Insurance companies can cancel policies after an accident, but most won’t take that drastic measure after a first collision. However, if you are at-fault for driving intoxicated or were distracted, they can take more severe steps. Teenagers caught texting and driving are most at risk of dropped coverage because they are already in a high-risk insurance category.
Every state sets its rules on what does and does not appear on your driving record. Some use a point system, and others simply record all offenses on your driving record. Because the law varies dramatically from state to state, it’s best to review your state’s distracted driving laws.
While your first offense is unlikely to appear on your record or cost you points, additional offenses likely will, including an at-fault accident. Distracted driving crashes will appear on your DMV record and will quickly impact your insurance rates.
Expert Insights on Distracted Driving
MoneyGeek reached out to industry leaders who research, study and campaign for ending distracted driving. Their expertise provides insight into the problem and how to combat it.
- What does research on hands-free car phones show?
- How is talking on a hands-free device different from talking to a passenger in your car?
- What about manufacturers who continue to put distracting technology in cars?
- Why is it so hard to get people to focus on the road?
- What actionable items work best to prevent distracted driving?
Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at Saint Louis University
President of Casey Feldman Foundation and EndDD.org
President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
Executive Director of The Risk Institute at The Ohio State University
State Relations Manager at AAA
Attorney and Head of the Social Security Disability Department at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin
Additional Resources for Distracted Driving
There are several great resources available to help you better understand the dangers of distracted driving. These resources can also help you discuss the issue with teenagers and take proactive steps to improve your driving behaviors.
- AAA's "Are you driving Intexticated?": AAA works to stop distracted driving with videos to help educate every driver of the dangers and provide actionable tips.
- Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety: This organization evaluates the distracted driving laws in each state and offers recommendations for improving them.
- CDC Transportation Safety: The CDC has updated statistics to understand the extent of the problem and proven best practices to reduce distracted driving.
- Distractology: Founded in the New England area, this driving simulator helps educate young drivers about the impact of distracted driving while behind the wheel.
- Drive SMART: From the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, this website offers guides and kits to set up safe driving habits for teenagers.
- EndDD: Founded following the death of Casey Feldman by a distracted driver, this foundation offers webinars, lesson plans and in-school lectures about the dangers of distracted driving, specifically for young drivers.
- Governors Highway Safety Administration: This site provides an interactive map with a state-by-state breakdown of distracted driving laws.
- IIHS: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety breaks down cellphones and crash risk as well as laws in each state for hand-held phones, texting and young drivers.
- Impact Teen National Safety Drivers: Impact Teen Drivers is a Sacramento, California-based group working to end distracted driving as a leading cause of teen death.
- It Can Wait: AT&T started the campaign, but it now includes dozens of other organizations. You can access a distracted driving kit and lots of public education materials on their website.
- NHTSA: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has an active campaign to stop distracted driving, including a pledge you can sign to commit to driving phone-free.
- The National Safety Council: The NSC provides free posters, tips, videos and other resources to get the word out about distracted driving. It also offers employers a cellphone policy kit to help them get their employees off the phone when on the road.
About Danielle Kiser
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