Last updated: October 2023

Distracted Driving: Risks and Prevention

Distracted driving is a serious problem. According to the CDC, roughly nine people in the U.S. are killed each day in accidents reported to involve a distracted driver. While alarming, the good news is that distracted driving can be entirely preventable. Use our guide below to understand what distracted driving is, how to avoid it, and its potential consequences.

What is distracted driving?

Distracted driving can refer to anything that takes a driver’s attention away from safe driving, endangering the distracted driver, their passengers, other drivers, cyclists, and nearby pedestrians, says the NHTSA.

3 types of distracted driving

Additionally, the NHTSA breaks down distracted driving into three different categories.

  1. Visual: Any distraction that leads the driver to take their eyes off the road
  2. Manual: Any distraction that leads the driver to take their hands off the steering wheel to perform another task.
  3. Cognitive: Any distraction that shifts the driver’s mental focus from safe driving to another subject.

Examples of distracted driving

Distracted driving can take your attention away from the road just long enough to cause serious harm to you or another person. Distractions come in many forms, but what do they look like practically? Some of the most common distracted driving behaviors include but are not limited to:

  • Texting
  • Talking on the phone (even hands-free devices)
  • Interacting with passengers
  • Using an infotainment or navigation system
  • Reading a map
  • Using a GPS
  • Eating
  • Drinking
  • Grooming
  • Listening to music
  • Adjusting the radio or CD player
  • Drowsy driving

Distracted driving laws in the U.S.

Many distracted driving behaviors, like eating while behind the wheel, aren’t explicitly outlawed by state legislation. However, these distracted driving behaviors can still lead to charges in another way, like if you were to cause an accident or run a stop sign because your attention wasn’t where it should be.

One example of distracted driving that is outlawed to some extent in almost every state is hand-held device use. New York became the first state to ban hand-held phone calls for all drivers in 2001, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Since then, many states have followed suit, issuing various cell phone use restrictions. Today 34 states and Washington D.C. prohibit drivers from using hand-held devices while driving. Currently, 49 states ban texting and driving and have serious restrictions for drivers under a certain age.

Distracted driving consequences

Distracted driving consequences could include fines, points on your record, or even jail time, depending on where you live, which offense it is, and what happened while driving distracted. However, the ultimate consequence of distracted driving is the number of unnecessary accidents and lives lost.

Distracted driving statistics

The following distracted driving facts from the NHTSA’s summary of statistical findings illustrate just how harmful it can be when you divert your attention from the road.

  • 3,522 people died in distracted driving-related crashes in 2021.
  • An estimated 362,415 people were injured in a distracted driving-related crash in 2021.
  • 14% of crashes with injuries, 13% of all crashes reported to the police, and 8% of all fatal crashes in 2021 were declared to be distraction-affected.
  • 644 nonoccupants, such as pedestrians and cyclists, were killed in distraction-affected crashes in 2021 alone.
  • Distraction-affected crashes had an economic cost of $98 billion in 2019 alone.

It is easy to become complacent about distracted driving when thousands of people drive distracted every day. Things like looking up directions on a smartphone app, talking to passengers, or changing the radio station may seem harmless. But the truth is that they can be dangerous and may prevent you from being a fully alert driver. As the stats above show, they too often lead to injuries, loss of life, and significant financial damages.

Cell phone use: dangers of texting & driving or talking & driving

Any interaction with a phone can be dangerous when you’re operating a vehicle. Despite distracted driving laws in the U.S., cell phone use while driving appears to be quite prevalent. In fact, the NHTSA estimated that 7.6% of U.S. drivers use a phone, either hand-held or hands-free, at a typical daylight moment.

Texting while driving statistics

You may think sending or reading a quick text has little to no effect on your driving ability, but it's riskier than you might realize. Here are some statistics that highlight just how dangerous it can be.

  • Texting can take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds, which at 55 miles per hour, is like driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed, says the NHTSA.
  • The CDC reported that high school students who text or email while driving are likelier to participate in risky behaviors, like not wearing a seatbelt or drinking and driving.
  • In 2020, 396 people died as a direct result of cell-phone related accidents, according to the NHTSA.

Talking is more dangerous than you might think

It's easy to think that talking on the phone while driving isn't a big deal, but it's actually the opposite. Any multitasking activity, even phone conversations, takes your attention away from the road and puts you and others at risk of getting into an accident. Additionally, if you're not driving hands-free, you don't have both hands on the wheel.

“Hands-free” does not mean “risk-free”

So, what about hands-free phone use? Even if you have both hands on the wheel, talking on the phone is still dangerous, according to an in-depth distracted driving paper put out by the National Safety Council. Here’s what they found:

“Drivers talking on hands-free cell phones are more likely to not see both high and low relevant objects, showing a lack of ability to allocate attention to the most important information. They miss visual cues critical to safety and navigation. They tend to miss exits, go through red lights and stop signs, and miss important navigational signage. Drivers on cell phones are less likely to remember the content of objects they looked at, such as billboards. Drivers not using cell phones were more likely to remember content.”

In other words, even if you don’t have the manual impairment holding a phone poses, you still are cognitively distracted.

Drowsy driving

People may not always think of drowsy driving as distracted driving. However, this cognitive distraction is just as dangerous as any other. The NHTSA says that drowsy driving can be considered another form of distracted driving in that drivers experiencing drowsiness do not apply their full attention to the driving task.

With millions of Americans suffering from chronic sleep problems being aware of the dangers of drowsy driving as a form of distracted driving is not something to sleep on.

What is drowsy driving?

Drowsy driving occurs when you operate a vehicle without adequate sleep. It’s also called tired driving, fatigued driving, and sleep-deprived driving. However, it can also be caused by untreated sleep disorders, shift work, or certain medications. Like driving under the influence of alcohol, drowsy driving is a form of impaired driving. While extreme cases may result in the driver falling asleep at the wheel, there are many other issues at hand too. Sleepiness can impair a driver’s alertness, attention, reaction time, judgment, and decision-making and severely increase their chances of crashing. A solid definition of drowsy driving tends to depend on how you define feelings like “sleepy,” “tired,” or “exhausted.”

Is drowsy driving a big problem?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the answer is a definite “Yes.” Police cited drowsy driving in at least 91,000 crashes in 2017, reports NHTSA, and these accidents resulted in 50,000 injuries and nearly 800 deaths. These figures, however, are likely significantly underestimating the issue, they note. Crash investigators do their best to look for clues that fatigue may have contributed to driver error, but these clues aren’t always clear.

As researchers and law enforcement officers develop new ways to identify crashes related to drowsy driving, we may begin to see that the issue is much more widespread than initially imagined. The 2009 Massachusetts Special Commission on Drowsy Driving, for instance, used a different research method and estimated that there could be as many as 1.2 million crashes, 8,000 lives lost, and 500,000 injuries due to drowsy driving each year.

What are the signs of drowsy driving?

If you, a friend, or a family member are experiencing one of the following symptoms while driving, it may be time to stop and rest. The following signs could end up having dangerous consequences, according to the CDC:

  • Heavy eyelids, frequent blinking
  • Daydreaming and disconnected thoughts
  • Missed exits or traffic signals
  • Constant yawning or rubbing eyes
  • Trouble keeping your head up
  • Drifting from lane to lane, hitting a shoulder rumble strip
  • Feeling restless or irritable

Why is drowsy driving dangerous?

Drowsy driving is dangerous because it slows reaction time, impacts good decision-making, impairs information processing, and decreases performance on the road. Sleepy drivers can fail to brake in time or avoid an accident and even veer off the road. Being alert and awake at the wheel is a key component of safe driving, and you should never risk your safety or others if you feel sleepy behind the wheel.

Distracted driving prevention

Distracted driving is preventable, but it will take effort and practice. You need to first change the way you think about distracted driving, then make a conscious effort to change your behavior, and finally, encourage others to do the same.

Take a distracted driving pledge

You can take the National Safety Council’s Just Drive Pledge and commit to avoid the following behaviors while driving:

  • Having phone or text conversations
  • Using voice-to-text features
  • Using any form of social media
  • Checking or sending emails
  • Taking photos of filming videos
  • Adjusting the GPS

Work together with friends and family

Additionally, you should avoid calling or texting friends and loved ones when you know they’re driving, and you should make sure to speak up when someone is driving distracted while you’re in the car.

Driving while distracted is a problem for everyone, but there are some different things to be aware of depending on your age. For example, teenagers are highly prone to distracted driving behaviors, making it important for them to speak out and hold each other accountable. Meanwhile, parents, teachers, and other adult leaders need to be particularly aware that kids are always watching what they do, making it crucial to set a good example behind the wheel.

It’s hard to break old habits, so you'll need to make conscious choices about your behavior in the car and be honest with yourself and others. If you catch yourself in a distracted moment or see a friend or loved one driving distracted, vocalize that it can wait or pull over safely if it’s an emergency.

After all, a missed text message, turn, or loose object rolling around on the floor is not worth a traffic ticket, fender bender, or major car accident.

Get enough sleep

The best way to prevent drowsy driving? Get enough rest on a regular basis. Sleep is the only preventative measure against the dangers of drowsy driving, says the NHTSA. Do your best to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, especially before a long road trip. Avoid drinking alcohol before driving, and if you take medications that tend to make you feel sleepy, ask a friend or family member to drive or opt for public transportation. If you must drive, avoid the road during “peak sleepiness periods,” which are midnight to 6 a.m. and in the late afternoon.

Tips to stay awake while driving

Getting enough sleep ahead of driving and taking naps in between are the top ways to help you avoid sleep-deprived driving. However, here are some other ways to stay awake while driving, too:

  • Follow good driving posture. Slouching in the driver’s seat could make you sleepy!
  • Drive with a partner. You can take turns driving, plus alert each other if either of you starts to look sleepy behind the wheel.
  • Stay hydrated! Drinking water gives you energy and increases your alertness. Dehydration can lead to tiredness and lethargy.
  • Eat healthy foods. A diet low in refined sugar, salt, and saturated fats helps increase energy levels while a diet high in these ingredients can make you tired.

What should you do if you get sleepy while driving?

If you start to doze off while driving, stop driving as soon as possible. Pull into a rest stop or any other safe, well-lit area where you are allowed to park and take a short 15–30-minute catnap to energize yourself before retaking the wheel. While it’s perfectly legal to nap in your car, nap in your car on the number of hours you’re allowed to sleep in your car or don’t allow overnight parking. Don’t feel comfortable napping in your vehicle? If time allows it, then consider booking a nearby hotel room so you can get a good night’s sleep before you take on the road again.

Participate in Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) designated April “Distracted Driving Awareness Month,” an important step in distracted driving prevention. It is meant to encourage drivers to become aware of the ways in which they may be driving unsafely and pledge to avoid driving distracted to protect themselves as well as passengers and bystanders.

Throughout the month you may see the NHTSA promote its U Drive. U Text. U Pay. campaign. It is designed to remind drivers about how dangerous distracted driving can be. Also, don’t be surprised to see an increased number of police officers enforcing hand-held device laws where you live.

Get covered with Direct Auto

Safe driving isn’t limited to pledging to avoid distracted driving habits. It also includes ensuring you have adequate car insurance to stay legal and financially protected on the road. Direct Auto is here to help. For a free auto insurance quote, call 1-877-GO-DIRECTvisit our website, or visit a Direct Auto location near you.

For additional details and disclaimers, please see our Terms of Use.

Find a Store

Enter ZIP code to find a store near you.

Start Auto Quote

Enter ZIP code to start your quote.