Spend any time on America’s roads, and you’ll conclude that drivers are paying attention to many things besides driving.
They’re devouring breakfast burritos, applying makeup, and sharing the driver’s seat with their dogs. And, of course, motorists are texting, tweeting, and otherwise gaping at their smartphones.
MoneyGeek analyzed federal statistics to determine which states have the highest rates of distracted driving. Intriguingly, the deadliest places were states with wide-open spaces, and not the gridlocked states of California, New York and Florida.
Where States Rank
According to MoneyGeek’s analysis of federal statistics on distracted-driving fatalities and roadway traffic, it’s unclear if texting bans and other legal steps really work. Montana, which gives drivers free rein to use their phones while driving, had a safer-than-average rate of distracted-driving deaths in 2017 and 2018, our analysis shows.
New Mexico, which banned texting while driving way back in 2014, continues to see a high death toll. It had the highest rate of distracted-driving fatalities.
In terms of raw numbers of distracted-driving deaths, Texas experienced the most tragedy in 2017 and 2018. There were 758 fatalities involving distracted driving in the state during those two years, the NHTSA reports. But adjust for Texas’ large population and vast geographic area, and the rate of distracted-driving deaths ranked ninth nationally, at 1.37 deaths per billion miles driven.
With the caveat that official stats about distracted driving are often flawed, we crunched the numbers to determine the states with the most dangerous and safest roadways. Nationally, there were 6,083 fatalities involving distracted driving in 2017 and 2018. For those two years, Americans racked up 6.45 trillion “vehicle miles traveled,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. That equates to a rate of 0.94 deaths per billion vehicle miles.
The Five Most Dangerous States for Distracted Driving:
4.8 deaths per billion miles driven. New Mexico bucked the trend of declining fatalities. Its distracted-driving deaths rose from 2017 to 2018, despite a campaign by safety advocates such as the nonprofit Safer New Mexico Now.
3.1 deaths per billion miles driven. Distracted-driving deaths fell slightly from 2017 to 2018. Kansas bans texting while driving, but there’s no statewide prohibition on motorists holding phones while behind the wheel.
2.8 deaths per billion miles driven. This state also saw a small decline in deaths from 2017 to 2018. Kentucky forbids texting while driving but allows drivers to hold phones.
2.7 deaths per billion miles driven. Distracted-driving deaths fell sharply, from 146 in 2017 to 119 in 2018, NHTSA says. Despite that promising trend, Louisiana still ranks high in fatalities involving distractions.
2.6 deaths per billion miles driven. From a regulatory standpoint, Hawaii has enacted strict laws. It’s alone among the five most dangerous states in banning handheld phones behind the wheel.
Here’s how the 10 deadliest states for distracted driving stack up to the national average:
MoneyGeek’s analysis finds huge differences in fatality rates between the most dangerous and safest states. The safest states were Mississippi, with just 0.23 distracted-driving deaths per billion miles driven, and Rhode Island, with 0.25 deaths. Car-crazy California, the epicenter of both epic commutes and the smartphone industry, ranked near the bottom, with just 0.4 deaths per billion miles driven for the two-year period.
Methodology: To calculate the two-year death rate, MoneyGeek used state-by-state reports of deaths involving distracted driving in 2017 and 2018 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and estimates of state-by-state vehicle miles traveled for 2017 and 2018 from the Federal Highway Administration.
Are Stats Reliable?
Given the extent of inattentive behavior behind the wheel, this federal statistic might come as something of a shock: Fatal crashes involving distracted driving declined nationwide in 2018, the latest year for which stats are available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
It was the first time in the decade that annual distracted-driving deaths dipped below 3,000, NHTSA stats show. If motorists indeed are paying closer attention while operating their vehicles, the welcome trend would mean fewer crashes, safer roads, and less pressure on insurance carriers to raise rates.
Cause for celebration? Maybe not. Far from claiming victory, traffic-safety experts say they simply don’t believe the NHTSA stats.
“There aren’t any reliable estimates of crashes, fatal or otherwise, caused by distracted driving,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit organization devoted to reducing traffic fatalities. “It’s difficult to say there’s any downward trend.”
AAA’s Jake Nelson is similarly underwhelmed. He also points to a gap between reporting and reality.
“While the reported number of distraction-affected fatal crashes has indeed declined, this does not equate to a confirmed decline in distracted driving generally,” says Nelson, the auto club’s director of traffic-safety advocacy and research.
“Data on distracted-affected crashes are difficult to capture.” Jake Nelson
To illustrate the challenges of accurately counting distracted-driving deaths, Rader summons the specter of drunk driving. If a motorist perishes in a crash, investigators test the deceased driver’s blood to determine whether the operator was impaired.
When it comes to proving distracted driving, however, there’s no such foolproof method. Perhaps a lawsuit will produce a subpoena of phone records to learn what the driver was doing at the moment of impact, but such cases are rare. And if the source of distraction was eating or tuning the radio or some other culprit that doesn’t leave a data trail, even a court order won’t shed light on the cause of the crash.
In fatal collisions where a distracted motorist survives and a passenger or another motorist dies, Rader adds, the distracted driver is unlikely to fess up to irresponsible behavior.
Rader doesn’t believe that drivers are finding the discipline to put down their phones while behind the wheel. He points to studies by NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, which routinely stations observers at busy intersections to count motorists who are obviously talking on or manipulating phones. In 2017, 2 percent of the 50,000-plus drivers observed were using their phones. In 2009, that figure stood at just 0.6 percent.
States Take Action on Smartphone Use
The increasing addictiveness of smartphones has led most states to limit the use of phones by drivers. Teens and new drivers are especially a risk when texting and driving. Nearly every state in the U.S. prohibits drivers from texting while behind the wheel. The only outliers are Montana, which does not restrict texting, and Missouri, which has enacted a partial ban, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Meanwhile, some states – including California, New York, and Illinois – forbid motorists from holding their phones while talking. And some states have prevented young drivers from using phones while behind the wheel.
Much like the seat-belt mandates and drunk-driving crackdowns of decades past, laws regulating cell-phone use send a strong message about safety priorities.
“They seem to be affecting behavior. The laws work in the sense that they tell drivers you shouldn’t use your phone behind the wheel or you’re going to get a ticket.” Russ Rader
Of course, such restrictions are all but impossible to enforce, a reality all those texting scofflaws have figured out. What’s more, smartphones are just a fraction of the potential distractions facing drivers – and state lawmakers haven’t been eager to impose bans on motorists applying mascara, eating hoagies, or chastising the children.
“Distraction has always been a problem,” Rader says. “We just keep inventing new ways to distract ourselves.”
Any distraction can create what traffic-safety advocates call “inattention blindness” – a driver can be looking at the road yet fail to process a hazard. Forcing millions of motorists to pay attention to the road remains a regulatory puzzle.