What you need to know about distracted driving

Avoiding distractions can increase safety and lower your insurance costs

Driving without full attention on the road has become increasingly problematic on US roadways. Policyholders can proactively increase safety and reduce insurance costs as the government, insurers, and technology companies confront this growing threat. The first step is understanding the issue.

What is distracted driving?

Any activity that pulls a driver's focus away from operating the vehicle is considered distracted driving. Many people may know that this behavior includes texting and rubbernecking (e.g., staring at accidents or scenery). However, talking on the phone or to other passengers, eating, drinking, reaching for something in the car, or engaging with navigation or entertainment systems can derail concentration, too. A complete list of potential diversions may not be possible, but it can be helpful to remember three main categories:

  • Visual distractions – those which divert your eyes away from the road.
  • Manual distractions – those which involve taking your hands off the steering wheel.
  • Cognitive distractions – those that require you to take your mind off driving.

How dangerous is distracted driving?

You can lose the time required to avoid a potential collision when your attention wanders away- even for a second. The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reported that more than 3,100 people died in distraction-related accidents in 2020. Each year, these types of incidents also injure an estimated 400,000 people. However, the actual numbers may likely be higher due to underreporting.

Has distracted driving increased?

Data from telematics service provider Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT) suggests that distracted driving in the United States rose more than 20 percent from February 2020 to February 2022. This dramatic upward shift emerged as traffic levels rebounded following the initial months of the pandemic. Again, the involvement of distraction in crashes, fatal or not, may be underreported. However, CMT estimates that "every 10 percent increase in distracted driving kills over 420 people and costs the American economy $4 billion every year."

Does distracted driving increase insurance costs?

Driving without full attention on the road is a safety hazard that can also affect your insurance rates. The risk of traffic violations and collisions increases when a driver loses focus. Although laws vary by state, inattentive behavior, such as texting while driving, may lead to points on your license. Such incidents can cause your auto insurance premium to rise, even if no one is physically hurt.

Does cell phone use increase driver distraction?

The GHSA study found that cell phone use–dialing, texting, and browsing–were among the most prevalent and highest-risk behaviors. In 2020, cell phone use caused 11 percent of fatal crashes, resulting in 354 deaths in the US, according to the NHTSA.

Who is most at risk for distracted driving?

It may be no surprise that younger drivers are the most likely demographic to find themselves involved in dangerous accidents because they took their attention off the road. According to GHSA data, drivers aged 15 to 20 years ranked as the highest risk for distraction at the time of a fatal crash. Therefore, parents of teen drivers should consider:

  • modeling safe driver behavior to set a good example,
  • regularly discussing the rules and consequences of driving, and
  • implementing "family driving safety rules," such as putting cell phones in driving mode to prohibit texts, calls, or other functions when in motion.

How has the government responded to distracted driving?

According to research by the Insurance Institute for High Safety (IIHS), data suggests that state laws against using mobile devices while driving correlate with reduced crash rates. However, overall results were mixed among the states studied as different legal language, degrees of enforcement, and penalty severity have resulted in outcome variations. Initiatives at the federal level include resources from Congress to support awareness via driver's license exams in 2021 and a strategic plan by the U.S. Dept of Transportation.

What is telematics and can it help curb distracted driving and save on insurance costs?

Insurers value information about driving behavior as a predictor of risk. Telematics is a technology that insurers can use to understand your risk profile and tailor auto insurance rates based on your driving habits. Policies involving telematics are also sometimes called usage-based insurance (UBI) because these capture and evaluate how you use your car. While traditional auto insurance rates rely on historical studies of factors such as a driving record and credit-based insurance score, telematics programs are designed to consider driver habits and other aspects of vehicle operation.

The information collected by telematics varies by insurer but can include rapid acceleration, hard braking, hard cornering, airbag deployment, time of day, and more. The data is analyzed to provide a sharper risk assessment and can lead to insurance savings for the monitored driver.

Does telematics help with driving safety?

A survey from the Insurance Research Council found that 45 percent of drivers said they made significant safety-related changes in how they drove after participating in a telematics program. Another 35 percent said they made small changes in their driving behavior.

Policyholders' comfort with allowing their driving behavior to be monitored in exchange for potentially lower insurance costs appeared to improve during the onset of the pandemic. In May 2019, Arity, a mobility data and analytics firm, surveyed 875 licensed drivers over the age of 18 to find out how comfortable they would be in having their insurance costs adjusted based on telematics variables. Between 30 and 40 percent said they would be either "very" or "extremely comfortable" sharing this data. In May 2020, Arity reran the survey with over 1,000 licensed drivers, and the results indicated a year-over-year increase of more than 12 percent.

Learn more:

Background on: Pay-as-you drive auto insurance (telematics)


Distracted driving (iihs.org)

Distracted Driving Awareness Month - National Safety Council (nsc.org)

April Is Distracted Driving Awareness Month | NHTSA

Triple-I Issues Brief: Distracted Driving: State of the Risk

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