Featured Experts
Beth
Beth Ebel, MD, MSc, MPH University of Washington View bio
Janet
Janet Ruiz Insurance Information Institute View bio
Justin
Justin Klepado CSAA Insurance Group View bio
Russ
Russ Martin Manager of state relations, AAA View bio
Cathy
Cathy Chase Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety View bio

This guide was written by

Mary Purcell

Everyone knows it’s dangerous. Texting, taking a call, putting on makeup behind the wheel can all lead to a crash in seconds. At 55 miles per hour, the average text takes your eyes off the road long enough to travel the length of a football field — blind. But most people refuse to believe it will happen to them. Surveys from the AAA Foundation have found that while almost all adults recognize the dangers of distracted driving, they think they themselves can safely multitask.

They’re wrong. Every day 8 people are killed and 1,161 injured in crashes that involve distracted driving, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, some researchers think distracted driving is partly to blame for a steep increase in fatal crashes the following year – a spike that followed a 22 percent decline between 2000 and 2014. As a result, they’re redoubling their efforts to combat it.

Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid a crash while texting, a citation for distracted driving can result in hefty fines and higher car insurance. Find out how to stop multitasking behind the wheel.

At A Glance
3,179

People killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2014

431,000

People injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2014

Crashes involving driver inattention each year

About 1,600,000

Cost of distracted-driving crashes to the US in 2010

$39.7 billion

Pedestrians, bicyclists and other non-occupants killed by distracted driving accidents in 2013

480

Percentage of car crashes involving cell phone use

26%

Estimated number of people using a cell phone or other electronic device while driving during any given moment during the day

660,000

Percent of teen drivers who admitted to texting while driving in the past 30 days

45%

Sources: Distraction.gov, National Safety Council, Journal of Safety Research

Teens and Young Drivers at Greatest Risk

Nineteen-year-old Heather Lerch of Washington was texting her friend as she drove home from work in 2010.

‘Hey you and I need to hang sometime….
‘OK cool.’ : )

At those words, her car hit a guardrail and crashed, killing her instantly. In a public service video, her grieving parents says the conversation could have waited; it was not worth her life. Heather’s is just one of the tragic stories shared in the Department of Transportation’s “Faces of Distraction” series.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens, and one in 10 involved in a fatal crash was distracted at the time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Because they are just learning to drive and lack experience behind the wheel, even the slightest distraction can be dangerous.

Unfortunately, drivers under 25 are two to three times more likely to text or email behind the wheel. In fact, one in three teens admitted texting while driving, according to one study, and the real figure may be still higher. According to a study co-authored by Liberty Mutual Insurance, 53 percent of teens said they texted behind the wheel — even though nearly 60 percent agreed texting was “the most distracting behavior” while driving.

Young people are also more likely to find distracted driving acceptable and oppose legislation to reduce distractions, according to the AAA Foundation.

And it isn’t just cell phones that are distracting teens. Other teenage passengers can be a big distraction, which is why 46 states limit the number of passengers that novice drivers can carry.

Advocates against drunk driving have spent decades teaching teens not to get in the car with a drunk driver. Now they are working to teach them to speak up if they are in a car with a distracted driver.

Types of Distracted Driving

Researchers say distracted driving is any activity that interferes with your ability to safety drive your vehicle. It can involve:

  • Taking your hands off the wheel
  • Taking your eyes off the road
  • Taking your mental attention away from your driving

Because texting involves all three of these distractions, it is considered the most dangerous. But talking on the phone, eating, changing the radio station or CD, or reaching for a briefcase can also be highly risky.

“Distracted driving has always been an issue,” says 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 cell phones, so it’s a larger concern today.”

Some safety researchers have compared the dangers of distracted driving to drunk driving. Physician and University of Washington scientist Beth Ebel, MD, MPH, says that since you’re 23 times more likely to crash while texting, it’s equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.19 — that is, a risk equivalent to driving while very drunk.

Poll: Are You a Distracted Driver?

Take our poll on these common forms of distracted driving. Have you done any of these things while driving or ridden in a car with someone who has?

Texting

Americans are highly critical of drivers who engage in texting and emailing while driving. Nevertheless, they often admit to engaging in these activities themselves. About 80 percent of drivers surveyed by the AAA Foundation in 2015 said that it is “completely unacceptable to text or email while driving, but 42 percent said they had read a text or email while driving in the past 30 days, and 31 percent admitted they had written one.

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Talking into a hand-held cell

Using your cell phone while driving can quadruple your risk of crashing, according to Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, a coalition of national health and safety organizations, insurance companies and trade associations. Unfortunately, 600,000 drivers are talking on their cell phones at any given moment, according to distraction.gov.

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Using hands-free phones

Most people think hands-free cell phone use is safe, according to a 2015 AAA Foundation survey. This is not surprising, since it’s usually legal for adults. But more than 30 studies have shown it is hazardous, according to the National Safety Council, which has developed an infographic called “Hand-Free Is Not Risk-Free.” And recent studies have found that voice-to-text systems can be even more distracting than typing in a text.

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Eating and drinking

Consuming food and drink while driving is one of the most common forms of distracted driving. Fumbling with a food wrapper or spilling a hot drink on your lap while driving can be deadly. Unfortunately, an Exxon Mobil survey of 1,000 drivers found that 70 percent of them eat and 83 percent drink beverages while driving. This increases their risk of crashing by 80 percent, according to NHTSA. To take just one example, a driver in Antelope, California eating a taco at 3:30 a.m. rammed into two parked cars and flipped his over after looking down to wipe some crumbs off of his lap. The bottom line: if you can’t wait to eat or drink, pull over.

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Grooming

Chances are you’ve seen someone applying makeup or fixing their hair while driving. In a recent United Kingdom survey, 3 percent of women confessed that putting on makeup had led them to crash their car. Based on that statistic, one British newspaper estimated that women primping while driving causes almost half a million crashes in the U.K. a year. In the United States, one study found that grooming while driving increased the risk of a crash three-fold, but a more recent study suggests it’s not as dangerous as previously thought. Still, researchers say, it’s not worth the risk.

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Changing clothes

A study published in the Journal of Transportation Safety & Security found that 27 percent of teens admitted to changing their clothes and shoes while driving. Not only does this take your eyes off the road, your arm could get caught in a sleeve, seriously impairing your ability to drive.

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Fiddling with your playlist/reaching for something

Changing the radio station, reaching for something in the back seat, looking at a GPS or map: All of these can be risky distractions as well. Experts advise that you pre-program your radio station,load your GPS, and choose your Spotify playlist before you leave.

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Arguing or having intense talks with passengers

According to one 2006 University of Michigan study, this can be as risky as talking on a cell phone. Other researchers say that cell phone conversations are riskier (see Expert Interview, below).

I've done this myself while driving
I've been in a car where the driver did this

Clear Results

Driving with a pet on your lap

A 2010 survey from the AAA found that more than one in five drivers (21 percent) said they’ve let their pooch ride on their lap while driving, while 7 percent had fed the dog or given it water and another 5 percent had played with it behind the wheel. Nearly a third said that driving with a dog in the car was distracting, no matter where it was sitting.

I've been in a car where the driver did this
I've done this myself while driving

Clear Results

How to Prevent Distracted Driving

If you are a distracted driver (see above) who can’t resist the temptation to text and email behind the wheel, or a parent worried about her texting child, there’s one surefire way to prevent it: an ignition interlock.

An ignition interlock…for cell phones

Just like interlocks used to prevent intoxicated people from driving, these interlocks interfere with your ability to use your cell phone or text while behind the wheel. The first such device developed is called Origo. It requires the cell phone to be secured in a docking station (facing away from the driver) in order to start the car.

If the phone is removed from the docking station while the car is driving, an alarm sounds until the phone is replaced, and the driver will not be able to restart the car without an administrator (for example, a parent) resetting the system. The system, however, does allows a driver to use the Bluetooth function and the hands-free cell phone.

Distracted driver? There’s an app for that

The three major wireless carriers all have free apps — AT&T’s DriveMode, Sprint’s Drive First, and Verizon’s Safely Go– that can help limit your ability to engage in dangerous activities while driving.

A 2014 Consumer Reports review of the apps, however, found that they all need further development. For example, at least one allows you to pick three apps (including texting!) you can use while driving. Others don’t activate unless you are going at least 25 mph. “These apps are a step in the right direction, but they need further development to make them more effective,” concluded Consumer Reports testers, adding that they’d like them to all have an automatic reply that responds to texts and phone calls.

Tips to prevent distracted driving

If you just need some common sense tips to help you focus on the road, here’s some expert advice, courtesy of the Governors Highway Safety Association:

  • Turn your phone off and stow it away

    Having your phone next to you may be too tempting, so put it out of reach when you get behind the wheel.

  • Set an automated message

    Record a message on your phone that tells callers you’re driving and will get back to them when you’re off the road. There are apps that will do this for you automatically when you start to drive.

  • Pull over

    If your call, text, or email can’t wait, pull over to a safe place to take care of it.

  • Ask for help

    If you have a passenger who can take the call, have him do it.

  • Prepare

    Take care of business – calls, texts, entering directions in your GPS device – before you put the car in drive.

  • Mind the kids

    If you need to help your kids (or break up a fight in the backseat), pull over to a safe place first.

  • Secure your pets

    Never allow your pet(s) to sit on your lap while driving, and keep in a secured pet carrier in the back if possible. Unsecured pets can be a big distraction.

  • Stick to driving

    Avoid eating, drinking, grooming, smoking, reading, and any other activity that takes your eyes, hands or mind off driving.

  • Know the law

    Remember, every state – and even some localities – has its own laws, so be sure you know yours.

Take the pledge

The federal government is also active in the campaign to stop distracted driving. You can go to Distraction.gov for information about their efforts and to take the pledge in which you promise:

  • Not to text or talk while driving

  • To speak up if you are a passenger in car in which a driver is talking or texting

  • Talk to friends and family about the dangers of distracted driving

The Impact of Distracted Driving on Auto Insurance

Will getting a citation for texting and driving affect your insurance rates? It depends on the circumstances.

If your distracted driving causes an accident, expect to see an increase in your insurance premium when it’s time to renew, just like you would with any accident. “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.”

Premium hikes: The not-so-good, the bad, and the ugly

How much your premiums might increase depends on your insurance carrier and the rest of your driving record, among other things. In Missouri, for example, accidents caused by distracted driving in that state can raise your insurance rates by at least 50 percent for three to seven years.

If your teenager causes an accident due to distracted driving, he or she could be dropped from the policy, according to the Missouri Department of Insurance. Even if a teen isn’t dropped from the policy, teens involved in an accident or ticketed for distracted driving will likely lose any good student discounts they have.

And even if there isn’t an accident, your insurance premium could take a hit if you are cited for distracted driving. “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 that will impact your premium,” says Klepado. One citation alone may not change your premium, but it can.

Do distracted driving citations go on your DMV record?

Usually a citation for distracted driving will make it onto your DMV record, but a number of states have sought to keep that information from reaching insurers, according to AAA’s Russ Martin. “Some states have passed laws to try to keep information about distracted driving offenses from going to your insurer. When drivers commit these offenses, if it doesn’t go on the DMV record, it doesn’t go back to the insurer, and there isn’t a consequence.”

States like Idaho, Washington, and North Carolina, for example, do not allow texting while driving citations to be included in the DMV record accessed by insurers to determine rates.

“From AAA’s perspective, we think drivers should face the consequences of their traffic offenses. There should be fines and points on their DMV record if their DMV uses that system,” and insurers should have access to that information, Martin says.

States Cracking Down on Distracted Driving

The growing threat to safety has spurred most states to introduce laws against distracted driving, especially texting. Every state except Montana has a law against texting, at least by certain groups, such as teens.

At latest count, the Governors Highway Safety Association reports:

  • 46 states and the District of Columbia ban texting for all drivers (five of these states only have secondary enforcement)
  • 38 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use for novice drivers (seven of these states only have secondary enforcement)
  • 14 states and DC ban the use of handheld phones for all drivers

California, among other states, has seen a drop in accidents involving distracted driving since legislation was passed that prohibited cell phone use while driving, according to a study sponsored by SafeTREC at the University of California at Berkeley.

“We are working on trying to get bans on texting while driving in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” says Cathy Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. The coalition has reservations about secondary enforcement bans, which that texting drivers can only be cited if they are pulled over for another reason. “We don’t consider those to be optimal laws,” she says.

Graduated driver’s licenses: Added protection for teens

Since teens are at greatest risk for distracted driving, many states have adopted graduated driver’s licensing (GDL) programs that restrict the rights of novice drivers to protect them against distractions when they are still learning to drive. GDL programs vary from state to state, but usually entail restrictions on the use of cell phones, texting, and how many passengers they can carry during the first six to twelve months of a teen’s license. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety recommends that states prohibit all use of cellular devices (both hand-held and hands-free) for teens drivers during their learner permit and intermediate stages of their GDL (except in case of an emergency).

“For teens who are just learning to drive, we support a complete ban on cell phone use of any kind,” says 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.”

What are the penalties?

If you are caught breaking the law, most states will charge you a fine ranging from as little as $25 to hundreds of dollars for a first offense, but beware – there are exceptions. In Alaska, for example, you can be fined up to $10,000 and a year in prison for your first texting and driving offense. If you kill someone as a result of texting and driving, you will be looking at a $250,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.

Preventing Distracted Driving: Who’s Making a Difference?

States and local communities

State and local legislators, public health and highway safety agencies, community groups, and law enforcement are all joining forces to tackle the dangers of distracted driving.

Source: Texas Department of Public Safety

California, Texas, and Georgia, among other states, have launched public awareness campaigns to warn drivers of the dangers of driving while distracted. They’re using social media like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to get the word out. And cities from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Jacksonville, Florida are passing policies that ban city employees from texting or using a cell phone while driving a city vehicle or conducting city business. The Governors Highway Safety Association also monitors distracted driving laws nationwide.

Employers and worker safety agencies

Employers are especially concerned about distracted driving because they can be held liable if an employee crashes while texting behind the wheel while on the job. The National Safety Council recommends employers prohibit the use of both hands-free and handheld devices while driving among all employees. It has also developed a sample distraction-free driving policy for employers to adopt.

On its part, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has called on all employers to prohibit employees from texting while driving to work. OSHA points out that employers who require their employees to text while driving — or whose work practices make it a virtual necessity – are violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which requires employers to provide a workplace free of serious recognized hazards. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also urged employers to ban the use of company-issued cell phones while driving.

The CDC, NHTSA, and other federal safety agencies

Responding to the alarming rise in traffic fatalities in 2015, NHTSA has joined other traffic safety advocates in convening a series of summits on distracted driving and other dangers. The CDC and NIH are active in research and public health campaigns on the issue, and the Department of Transportation has devoted an entire website to distracted driving (www.distraction.gov). As part of their campaign, DOT and NHTSA have produced graphic videos on consequences of texting and driving for teens.

National safety, driving and teen advocacy groups

The AAA, National Safety Council, Safe Kids USA, Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and many other groups in the U.S. and Canada have launched public outreach campaigns.The National Safety Council has started a campaign called “Take Back Your Drive,” urging people to turn off all wireless devices in the car.

Telecommunications companies

AT&T launched a campaign called It Can Wait back in 2010, which partners with state and local governments, safety groups, schools, employers and the general public to look for solutions to the dangers of distracted driving. It has its own pledge that has been signed by over 8 million people. The Campaign received a special achievement award from the GHSA in 2014.

Parents

Parents have a critical role to play. Setting rules and expectations before your teens get a license, perhaps even signing a contract with your child about texting and phoning while driving, will help.

Parents can also set a good example for their teens by not engaging in distracted driving themselves. In a study by Liberty Mutual and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), 41 percent of teens said that their parents engaging in unsafe driving behaviors – including talking on phones — even after their kids ask them to stop. If you can afford it, you may also want to consider investing in an ignition interlock to protect your new driver from the temptation to text and drive.

High schools

State traffic safety agencies work with the schools to prevent drunk and distracted driving. In one innovative program launched by the Arbella Insurance Foundation, students take a Distractology driving simulator course. The mobile classroom tours around New England, parking at High Schools to offer new drivers a chance to learn how to anticipate hidden hazards, react to the road, and avoid accidents. The simulator allows students to experience the deadly potential of a two-second distraction behind the wheel.

Driver’s education

Many driving education schools are including a whole component on distracted driving, with a special emphasis on novice drivers. Some states require distracted to be included in driver’s education courses or in the licensing exam. The federal government and national safety groups have developed standards for state-sponsored driver’s education courses and the standards include guidelines on incorporating distracted driving into the curriculum.

Insurance companies

Insurers are a key player in Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which is heavily involved in trying to broaden distracted driving laws. In addition, insurance companies encourage the businesses they insure through their commercial programs to adopt anti-distracted driving policies, according to Insurance Information Institute’s Janet Ruiz. “Employers have an important role to play in promoting non-distracted driving,” she says. “They can tell employees not to dial in to conference calls when they are driving, for example. This can have a big impact if it’s coming from your boss.”

Expert Interview

Russ
Russ Martin Manager of state relations, AAA View bio

The AAA Foundation has conducted a landmark study that measured the brain activity of drivers subjected to cognitive (mental) distractions behind the wheel. By demonstrating that mentally-distracted drivers miss visual cues, have slower reaction times, and even exhibit a sort of tunnel vision, this study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that “hands-free” doesn’t mean risk free.

What did your research on hands-free car phones show?

In the research we found there is such a thing as cognitive distraction. A person’s mental focus can have an impact on driving performance, and cognitive distractions can cause drivers to miss visual cues, like stop lights and pedestrians.

This is the first time anyone has tried to take a look at this, and there is certainly a lot more research needed. But cognitive distraction is a very difficult thing to study.

Why is talking on a hands-free device different from talking to a passenger in your car?

With a hands-free phone call, it’s not the device itself that’s distracting — it’s the conversation with someone who is not in the vehicle.

It appears adult passengers can sometimes help drivers by modulating the conversation depending on the traffic situation. They will pause the conversation and let you take care of what you need to behind the wheel. They may even point out hazards in the road. But it’s different if someone is on the phone and they don’t know what kind of traffic you’re in. They can’t respond to traffic conditions in the same way.

What’s the impact on teens?

Teens have lots of distractions – cell phones, 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.

Teens 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.

What about manufacturers who continue to put distracting technology in cars?

There are new cars with lots of technology that can be distracting, and this is a concern for AAA and many safety groups.

We have done research on the various voice command technologies that are available now. Some are very cognitively distracting, some less so. So you can design these systems to be less distracting, and this is a goal post for us. We want to work collaboratively with the companies that make these products to see how they can voluntarily adapt their technologies to make them less distracting.

Usability and cognitive distraction are very closely related. Not surprisingly, the harder it is to use a voice command system, the more cognitively distracting it is. So as manufacturers make these products easier to use, they’ll be less distracting.

Why is it so hard to get people to focus on the road?

I think it’s a whole lot tougher than other types of traffic safety campaigns like the use of seat belts, because [using cell phones] is something people do all day. People are very attached to using wireless devices. And it’s a long hill climb to get them to change their attitudes about when it is appropriate to use these devices and when it isn’t.

Resources

Distraction.gov

The federal government’s official web site on distracted driving. Find statistics and educational tools, and take the pledge here.

Governors Highway Safety Administration

Provides an interactive map with state-by-state breakdown of distracted driving laws.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

Evaluates the distracted driving laws in each state and offers recommendations for improving them.

The National Safety Council

Provides free posters, tips, videos and other resources to get the word out about distracted driving. It also offers employers a cell phone policy kit to help them get their employees off the phone when on the road. Watch the “One Call Can Change Everything” video here.

Distractology

A program from the Arbella Insurance Foundation and designed by researchers at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The traveling program, which includes a driving simulator, visits high schools around the country to educate inexperienced drivers about the dangers of distracted driving.

It Can Wait Campaign

The campaign was started by AT&T but now includes dozens of other organizations. You can access a distracted driving kit and lots of public education materials on their web site.

EndDD

EndDD is a nonprofit devoted to ending distracted driving. It was started by the parents of Casey Feldman, who was killed by a distracted driver at age 21.

Impact Teen Drivers

Impact Teen Drivers is a Sacramento, California-based group working to end distracted driving as a leading cause of teen death.

Distracted Driving Foundation

The DDF is promoting a technological solution to distracted driving: a phone that shuts off if held by a driver.

Decide to Drive Checklist

A list of things you should take care of before you start the car