Background on: Distracted driving


Activities that take drivers’ attention off the road, including talking or texting on mobile devices, eating, conversing with passengers and other distractions, are a major safety threat.

The use of mobile phones and other electronic devices while driving has emerged as one of the leading causes of distracted driving related crashes. However, research shows that using a cellphone when driving is just one of many types of distracted driving that may lead to crashes and near crashes.

Scope of the problem

During the last five years (ending in 2015), for which data is available from the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) there were about 3,000 distracted driving crashes a year, accounting for about 10 percent of all fatal crashes. These crashes killed about 3,275 people and injured 410,000 over the same five years.

Economic losses from distracted driving could total $46 billion a year. NHTSA released a study in May 2014 which focused on behavioral factors that contributed to 32,999 highway fatalities and 3.9 million injuries in the U.S. in 2010. The study, "The Economic and Society Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010," found that those crashes cost $277 billion in economic losses and $594 billion in societal harm, for a total of $871 billion that year. A breakdown of the figures for economic losses show crashes involving distracted driving accounted for 17 percent ($46 billion).

Cellphone use is one of the distractions cited by NHTSA as a factor in fatal crashes.  Over the last five years of reporting, an average of 395 crashes a year involved the use of cellphones, accounting for 13 percent of all distraction-affected crashes. Cellphone-distracted crashes accounted for only 1 percent of all fatal crashes. About 425 people a year died in cellphone-distracted fatal crashes.

Drowsiness as a distraction caused more than 79,000 motor vehicle crashes each year on average over the last five years of reporting, resulting in 824 deaths, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report. A 2010 AAA Traffic Safety Foundation survey found that one in four drivers have struggled to stay awake while driving. An estimated 17 percent of fatal crashes, 13 percent of crashes resulting in hospitalization and 7 percent of all crashes requiring a tow, involve a drowsy driver, according to the AAA. Driver fatigue is a significant concern regarding operators of large trucks. In 2010 fatigue was a factor in 34 percent of fatal collisions involving drivers of large trucks, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

State and Federal Initiatives

  • In 2001 New York passed the first law banning hand-held cellphone use while driving.
  • About a dozen states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Almost all of the laws have "primary enforcement" provisions, meaning a motorist may be ticketed for using a hand-held cellphone while driving without any other traffic offense taking place.
  • In 2011 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that all states prohibit drivers from using cellphones, the first federal agency to call for a complete ban on telephone conversations from behind the wheel. Although the NTSB has no enforcement authority, as the federal government’s leading advocate for safety its recommendations are influential in Congress and the White House.
  • Almost every state and the District of Columbia has banned the practice of texting with a cellphone while driving. Most of these laws have primary enforcement provisions.

Key Studies

The following is a summary of some key research on the issue of distracted driving.

  • Cellphone use: A study sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Highway Safety published a report in January 2018 that found that a driver’s visual or manual use of a cell phone while driving resulted in about double the incidence of crashes compared with driving without any observable distraction-type behaviors.  The study, conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, included observations of 3,593 drivers whose driving was monitored using in-vehicle video and other data collection equipment for a period of several months between October 2010 and December 2013. Researchers noted that the cell phone use that was associated with the crashes was particularly texting but not limited to that task.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, released in June 2016, shows that about 41.5 percent of high school students reported that they texted or emailed from behind the wheel at least once during the previous 30 days, about the same as the 2013 survey. The survey is conducted every two years, and 2013 was the first time the 13,000 participants were asked about texting and emailing while driving. The highest rate of texting or emailing while driving, 63.2 percent, was among teens in South Dakota. The lowest rate, 26.1 percent, was among teens in Maryland.
  • A 2011 survey published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC confirmed that the problem of distracted driving is not improving. The survey looked at both U.S. drivers and drivers in seven European countries. The study found that almost seven in 10 American drivers ages 18 to 64 said they had talked on their phones while behind the wheel in the past 30 days, and about three in 10 said they had sent text messages. The practice of driving and using cellphones appeared to be far less common in the European nations surveyed. In the U.K., for example, which has strict laws regarding cellphone use while driving, only 21 percent of drivers admitted to having used a cellphone.
  • Early Studies: Motorists who used cellphones while driving were four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves, according to a study of drivers in Perth, Australia, conducted by the IIHS. The results, published in July 2005, suggested that banning hand-held phone use will not necessarily improve safety if drivers simply switch to hand-free phones. The study found that injury crash risk didn't vary with type of phone.
  • Many studies have shown that using hand-held cellphones while driving can constitute a hazardous distraction. However, the theory that hands-free sets are safer has been challenged by the findings of several studies. A study from researchers at the University of Utah, published in the summer 2006 issue of Human Factors, the quarterly journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, concluded that talking on a cellphone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk, even if the phone is a hands-free model. An earlier study by researchers at the university found that motorists who talked on hands-free cellphones were 18 percent slower in braking and took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked.
  • A September 2004 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that drivers using hand-free cellphones had to redial calls 40 percent of the time, compared with 18 percent for drivers using hand-held sets, suggesting that hands-free sets may provide drivers with a false sense of ease.
  • A study released in April 2006 found that almost 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds of the event.  The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the NHTSA, broke new ground. (Earlier research found that driver inattention was responsible for 25 to 30 percent of crashes.) This study found that the most common distraction is the use of cellphones, followed by drowsiness. However, cellphone use was far less likely to be the cause of a crash or near-miss than other distractions, according to the study. For example, while reaching for a moving object such as a falling cup increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by nine times, talking or listening on a hand-held cellphone only increased the risk by 1.3 times.
  • State Laws Banning Cellphone Use: Studies focusing on hand-held cellphone bans for drivers have yielded conflicting findings. Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) studies found that cellphone bans don’t reduce crashes, in contrast with a Consumer Reports National Research Center study that found that the laws were effective.  One of the factors leading to the conflicting findings may be the way the studies were conducted.
  • A HLDI analysis released in October 2014 found that although state bans on hand-held phone use by drivers have lowered phone use behind the wheel, they have not produced a similar drop in crashes. The study involved looking at the findings of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration programs conducted from April 2010 to April 2011 in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York, aimed at reducing talking or texting on hand-held phones. Both states ban hand-held phone use and texting. At the end of the program, researchers found that the number of drivers observed using a hand-held cellphone fell 57 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse. HLDI analysts then compared collision claims in the counties where these cities are located—with the comparison counties where there were no NHTSA programs. The analysis found no corresponding reduction in crashes reported to insurers from the program counties relative to the comparison counties. HLDI provided possible reasons for the bans' lack of effect on accidents, including the possibility that drivers may have been distracted by something else or that drivers may have switched to hands-free calling and still may have been distracted by their conversations.
  • The analysis confirmed some of the results of an earlier HLDI study, released in September 2010, that found that texting bans may not reduce crash rates. The study looked at collision claims patterns in four states—California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington—before and after text bans went into effect. Collisions went up slightly in all the states, except Washington, where the change was statistically insignificant. The president of HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that the findings “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes. They’re focusing on a single manifestation of distracted driving and banning it. This ignores the endless sources of distraction and relies on banning one source or another to solve the whole problem.”
  • A survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center published in June 2013 found that state laws that ban the use of a handheld cellphones or texting while driving in many states were effective. The December 2012 survey of 1,003 people found that 71 percent of respondents had stopped or cut back on texting, talking on a handheld phone or using a smartphone while driving in the previous year. Over 50 percent of them said they were influenced to change their behavior because of state laws, up from 44 percent in a survey conducted in 2011. The survey also found that about 25 percent of drivers were unsure of their own state’s laws.

Employer and Manufacturer Liability 

Although only a handful of high-profile cases have gone to court, employers are still concerned that they might be held liable for accidents caused by their employees while driving and conducting work-related conversations on cellphones. Under the doctrine of vicarious responsibility, employers may be held legally accountable for the negligent acts of employees committed in the course of employment. Employers may also be found negligent if they fail to put in place a policy for the safe use of cellphones. In response, many companies have established cellphone usage policies. Some allow employees to conduct business over the phone as long as they pull over to the side of the road or into a parking lot. Others have completely banned the use of all wireless devices.

In an article published in the June 2003 edition of the North Dakota Law Review, attorney Jordan Michael proposed a theory of cellphone manufacturer liability for auto accidents if they fail to warn users of the dangers of driving and talking on the phone at the same time. The theory holds that maker liability would be similar to the liability of employers who encourage or demand cellphone use on the road. Holding manufacturers liable would cover all persons who drive and use cellphones for personal calls. Michael notes that some car rental agencies have already placed warnings on embedded cellphones in their cars. 

Charts and Graphs

Fatal Crashes Affected By Distracted Drivers, 2015

  Crashes Drivers Fatalities
Total fatal crashes 32,166 48,613 35,092
Distracted-affected fatal crashes      
Number of distracted-affected fatal crashes 3,196 3,263 3,477
Percent of total fatal crashes 10% 7% 10%
Cellphone in use in distracted-affected
fatal crashes
Number of cellphone distracted-affected fatal crashes 442 456 476
Percent of fatal distracted-affected crashes 14% 14% 14%

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Additional resources

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