As an increasing number of car-mode apps, usage-based insurance programs, and new US state laws come into effect to help us focus on the road, we have to wonder: Is distracted driving still a major problem? Are we succeeding in our efforts to combat this dangerous epidemic, and if not, what more can we do?
“Nine people in the United States are killed every day in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.” - CDC
And while that number is shocking, distracted driving cases are often underreported. That’s because, for administrations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA), there is no easy way for them to connect an event like phone use to collisions (unless someone who is involved in the crash reports a distracted driving incident).
In this guide, we’ll provide an overview of what distracted driving is and the main types of distracted driving, facts about distracted driving today, and how we move forward in eliminating this massive risk with new solutions, techniques, and legislation.
The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA) defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system — anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”
As the End Distracted Driving Organization (EndDD) puts it, “distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention away from the primary task of driving.”
That’s a lot of potential distractions to dodge while behind the wheel - and while texting and driving is the most dangerous type of distraction, it’s only one of many to be aware of.
According to EndDD, distractions on the road are categorized by traffic safety experts into three types:
Cell phone use, specifically the act of texting and driving, is one of the most alarming and dangerous distractions because it encompasses all three types of distracted driving (manual, visual, cognitive). The NHSTA warns that when you text and drive (reading or actually typing a text), you’re removing your eyes from the road for 5 seconds. If you’re traveling at 55mph, “that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”
Sending or reading a text message while behind the wheel is like driving the entire length of a football field at 55 mph with your eyes closed. - NHSTA
It’s not possible for a person to drive safely unless the task of driving has their full attention. Any form of distracted driving increases the likelihood of a crash.
Distracted driving, largely due to our increasing reliance on mobile devices, has caused roads across the nation to become deadlier than ever.
Since 2010, approximately 660,000 drivers are using or manipulating electronic devices at a given moment in the US. As of 2011, cell phone users are 5.36 times more likely to get into an accident than undistracted drivers. For commercial drivers, text messaging while driving increases the risk of a collision or near-collision by 23X.
Cell phone users are 5.36 times more likely to get into an accident than undistracted drivers. - University of Utah
Unfortunately, distracted driving has been on the rise in recent years, particularly among young drivers. Here’s what we know:
In 2018, an estimated 2,841 people were killed and 400,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes that involved distracted drivers (8% of which were teens, between the ages of 15-19). Teens in this age range make up the largest group of drivers who were distracted at the time of a fatal collision.
In 2019, the number of people killed in distracted driving-related crashes rose to 3,100, with 424,000 injured. According to the CDC, one in five people “who died in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2019 was not actually in vehicles - they were walking, riding their bikes, or otherwise outside a vehicle.” Among young drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 involved in a crash in 2019, 9% of them were distracted. In that same year, distracted driving was a reported factor in 8.5% of fatal motor vehicle crashes.
In 2020, the monumental year that completely changed our lives, Zendrive released a Collision Report drawing from hundreds of billions of miles of data to understand the underlying behaviors connected to crashes.
When we analyzed a subset of 86,000+ collisions and found that 57% of all crashes involve phone use. During January and November of 2020, despite a decrease in cars on the road due to the pandemic, there was a 63% increase in collisions per million miles.
In 2021, Zendrive found that drivers involved in a collision spend an average of 91 seconds using their phone prior to the crash, which is 2.64X more seconds more time spent on the phone than drivers who aren’t involved in a collision.
Furthermore, a February 2022 NHTSA report revealed an increase in roadway fatalities by 12% in the first 9 months of 2021. As Nationwide reports, “Despite a decrease in miles driven, accidents are likely to be more severe - even fatal - from reckless driving behaviors.”
Of course, that includes phone use. Nationwide’s survey revealed that:
More than a third of all drivers (34%) believe it to be safe to hold a phone while driving, and half of all drivers surveyed “said that in the last six months they have held a cell phone to talk, text, or use an app while driving.”
At the same time, The New York Times reported that two years into the pandemic, pedestrian deaths are spiking due to reckless driving. Indeed, new evidence suggests that the distracted driving epidemic may have actually worsened in 2021.
Currently, there is no nationwide law in the US that curbs phone use while driving. But “in 48 states, the District of Colombia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, texting while driving is an illegal, ticketable offense” for which you could end up paying a huge fine or get points on your license.
In some states like Florida and South Dakota, however, the texting while driving ban is a secondary law, meaning a driver first must pull over a driver for a primary offense like not wearing a seatbelt.
Fines for texting and driving also vary depending on the state. In South Carolina, for instance, you might get a fine of about $25 if caught, but in Utah, your fine could reach $750 (you may even face up to 3 months in jail if caught texting in Utah). Elsewhere, in Oregon, you could be fined up to $1,000 for the offense (that’s 10X the median fine in the US).
And perhaps the future is bright (and more focused). More aware than ever of the deadly distracted driving problem, 86% of American drivers now support hands-free legislation, according to Nationwide's 2022 survey. Hands-free primary enforcement laws would mean that officers could ticket drivers “who are operating mobile handheld devices behind the wheel,” as opposed to hands-free devices.
Using handheld devices while driving is banned in 25 states and Washington D.C. As of April 2022, Colorado became one of the newest states to ban talking on handheld devices while driving.
Recognizing the negative impact that smartphones have on the distracted driving epidemic, mobile app developers, mobile network operators, and automotive OEMs have introduced mobile apps or device settings to help drivers get more focused.
Do Not Disturb mode on a smartphone, for example, can either fully block all calls and messages while you drive, or show larger, easier to read messages on the phone screen. AT&T’s DriveMode silences incoming messages and alerts, while Toyota’s Safe & Sound gamifies driver safety and gives parents of teens more control of device permissions.
Drivers plagued by various cell phone-related distractions can rely on a variety of solutions to keep their attention on the road, from abiding by state laws to turning on Do Not Disturb mode or using the apps mentioned above.
To add to these, here are some key distracted driving safety tips to adopt:
"As the driving environment continues to become overloaded with inputs to the driver, I think it makes sense for technology to help elevate potential safety risks and curate the information needing to be processed by the driver." - Janet Wesner, Head of Analytics, Munich Re US*
*Opinions are her own and do not represent those of Munich Re.
While legislators, law enforcement, and drivers themselves have an obligation to stop distracted driving, technology leaders and providers, and the partners they work with, have a huge collective role to play.
Companies like Zendrive, for one, make it their core mission to strengthen global road safety with the help of partners like auto insurers, keeping issues like distracted driving top of mind. The Mobility Risk Intelligence (MRI) platform helps users understand and mitigate mobility risk using critical behavioral feedback, predictive insights, and automated alerts.
Relying on billions of miles of data generated by tens of millions of drivers, MRI offers auto insurers the ability to more accurately and fairly cover their policyholders through behavior and usage-based programs. That’s all while analyzing driver behavior and offering direct feedback and coaching to reward safe driving habits, and avoid risky habits like phone use. Driver feedback is engaging (and can even be gamified), offering both peace of mind and a fun experience to all users.
In addition, Automatic Collision Notifications through MRI also instantly detect collisions, dispatch help to the distressed driver, and make the traumatizing experience smoother with an automated claims experience.
Distracted driving remains a growing problem across the US and the world. While new laws to curb distracted driving are ever-important, and drivers need to get focused, tech leaders and providers have a unique obligation to stop distracted driving.
At Zendrive, we predict that, in reversing this epidemic, new-age telematics platforms are critical: those that rely on massive amounts of reliable data to analyze, score, offer feedback, and ultimately provide fairer insurance prices to drivers based on how they actually drive – incentivizing people around the world to drive safely.