The High Toll of Distracted Driving and Staying Safe on the Road

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It only takes a moment of distracted driving to cause a tragic crash. Looking down to read a text is like driving blind. 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. While many of us believe we are safe drivers, about eight people die in crashes involving a distracted driver every day in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With 3,142 deaths associated with distracted driving in 2019, federal and state leaders are more proactive than ever to convince us to put our phones down and focus on the road. All but two states, Missouri and Montana, have a text messaging ban, and 30 states have a ban on hand-held devices.

Distracted driving risks lives. It can also significantly impact your car insurance rates. Your provider is more likely to consider you a riskier driver with 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?

Our first thought when we hear distracted driving is texting, which is understandable with 13% of all fatal distraction-affected crashes linked to cellphone use, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the distracted driving definition includes multiple types of distracted driving. Distracted driving is any activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.

  • Visual: This type of distraction is when drivers take their eyes off the road, including both in-vehicle distraction and out of the vehicle events. For example, looking at your GPS in the car or staring at a roadside crash.
  • Manual: A manual distraction is anytime 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.
  • Auditory: 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.
  • Cognitive: When you’re driving, you have control of a 4,000-pound vehicle. It’s essential to keep your mind focused, and when it wanders off the road, you are cognitively distracted. Cognitive distractions include daydreaming, talking to passengers or talking on the phone.

The reason texting while driving is so concerning is it combines visual, manual and cognitive distractions simultaneously. And, often, we’re trying to do it at the same time as 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 and eating breakfast AND using their cellphones, so it's a larger concern today."

Young Drivers More Likely to Engage in Distracted Driving

Young Drivers and Distractions

Teens and young drivers are at the most significant risk of distracted driving. Among drivers involved in deadly crashes, drivers 15 to 19 years old are most 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 involved a distracted driver, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Teenagers are most at risk because of their lack of 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, manager of state relations at AAA Foundation. “Teen brains are still developing, they have the highest crash risk, and they 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.”

How Severe Is Distracted Driving Compared to Drunk Driving?

How It Compares to 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, which is equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.19. That is more than twice the legal limit and is a risk comparable to driving while drunk.

While the number of deaths is higher from drunk driving, distracted driving is likely under-reported. Alcohol levels can be tested and confirmed, while distracted driving must be self-reported in most cases.


State Laws on Being Distracted

As cellphones became more commonplace in the early 2000s, states quickly reacted to safety concerns and introduced laws to prevent distracted driving. Distracted driving laws vary by state and in severity. A primary law means you can be pulled over and ticketed for the action. In contrast, secondary enforcement means an officer can only cite you if you violated a primary offense first.

  • 47 states and the District of Columbia have a primary law banning text messaging
  • Two states have a secondary law on texting and driving
  • 24 states ban all cellphone use while driving

"We are working on trying to get 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 to be 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 categories 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 Bans While Driving by State

While each state creates its own driving laws, many are similar. Distracted driving laws focus on three things: 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 their distractions as they gain 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).

What Are the Penalties?

If the police catch you texting while driving, you will face fines and penalties. Similar to the laws themselves, 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 Licenses: Added Protection for Teens

Teenagers and new drivers are most at risk for severe crashes and accidents, so many states implement 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.

"For teens who are just learning to drive, we support a complete ban on cellphone use of any kind," said Chase. "It is also important to limit the number of teen passengers they can carry. This is the most dangerous time for drivers. They are more prone to risk-taking and need to focus on learning to drive."

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%. GDL programs are available in each state. Check to see if there is a local program in your area.

These programs, along with adult role models, can help teen drivers be safer on the road and prevent crashes and accidents, especially around distracted driving.

Being on Auto-Pilot With Self-Driving Cars

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 2019 study discovered 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 of drivers engaging in visual or manual distractions than drivers who did not use the automated systems.

As an NSC white paper concluded, “Technology available today cannot replace an attentive driver. Technology works with us but not without us.”

How to Prevent Distracted Driving

How to Prevent Distracted Driving

We all face multiple distractions on the road: visual, manual, auditory and cognitive. How do you prevent yourself from engaging in distracted behaviors? There are steps, tools and tips to use that can help you keep your focus on the road.

Here are actions you can take before and during your drive to prevent becoming a distracted driver.

Banding Together to Prevent Distracted Driving

To prevent distracted driving and save 3,000 lives a year, it will take all of us. 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 University of Michigan works in the local commute 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

Automobile manufacturers are taking your safety seriously and partnered to promote Decide to Drive, a campaign to make people aware of the dangers of distracted driving. Other 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 that implements advanced driver assistance systems to monitor its commercial fleet. Commercial vehicles can install interlock devices like the OrigoSafeDriver.

Federal Safety Agencies

Responding to the alarming rise in traffic fatalities, NHTSA began studying distracted driving and started campaigns to raise awareness of the issue. Working with the Department of Transportation, NHTSA devoted an entire website to distracted driving, including graphic videos showing the consequences of texting and driving for teens.

Advocacy Groups

There are several agencies committed to ending distracted driving nationwide. Many started following tragedies, like EndDD, which the parents of Casey Feldman founded. She died at 21 years old after getting hit in a crosswalk by a distracted driver. Impact Teen Drivers is based in Sacramento, California and focuses on ending distracted driving as a leading cause of teen death. AAA, 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: distracted driving kills.

School Districts and Institutions

Many high schools offer and promote driver’s education courses. These courses provide novice drivers the knowledge and experience to create a safe driving foundation. Teen-specific courses focus on the dangers of distracted driving. Some included Distractology driving simulations to show teenagers how distractions impact their driving.

Insurance Companies

Insurers can play a significant role in promoting safe driving habits by incentivizing good behaviors and driver safety training programs. They are also key players 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 Can Impact Your Auto Insurance

Being Distracted and Car Insurance

Like most unsafe driving habits, distracted driving can impact your auto insurance coverage and rates. To what degree depends on state regulations and if you crash into other vehicles. A clean driving record is one of the best ways to reduce your car insurance costs. Crashes and accidents are likely to increase your premiums.

"If an insurance carrier can prove you were distracted when the accident happened and you were the cause of the accident, then that's a factor (in determining your premium)," says Justin Klepado, a 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 a crash, 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 to 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 crashes and accidents, 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 are more likely to 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.

Do Distracted Driving Citations Go on Your DMV Record?

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 offense 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 offense likely will, as well as an at-fault accident. Distracted driving crashes will appear on your DMV record and will quickly impact your insurance rates.

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 in improving 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.
  • Decide to Drive Checklist: A list of items you should take care of before you start the car and begin driving to your destination.
  • 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.
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (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 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 now includes dozens of other organizations. You can access a distracted driving kit and lots of public education materials on their website.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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 the Author


Danielle is a professional journalist with fifteen years of experience covering current events from the 2008 financial crisis to the COVID-19 global economic recession. As a former TV news producer, she focuses on sharing relevant and factual stories that stimulate personal growth and knowledge.

Danielle graduated from the acclaimed University of Missouri School of Journalism with a focus in Broadcast Journalism.

With six out-of-state moves and three home purchases under her belt, she has first-hand experience navigating state regulations, insurance and real estate. She currently lives in Colorado with her husband and a greyhound named Oreo.