Distracted Driving Guide

drawing of car hitting orange barrels due to distracted driving

Did you know that every day, about 8 people in the United States are killed in accidents that are reported to involve a distracted driver?1 Distracted driving is a serious problem, and all drivers should be aware of how distracted driving affects behavior on the road.

Distracted driving is anything that takes your attention away from driving. It doesn’t just endanger distracted drivers – their passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians are also at risk.

Direct Auto has put together this guide to help you learn more about driving distractions and distracted driving laws in the U.S., plus the steps you can take to prevent distracted driving and make the roads safer.

Types of Distracted Driving

There are three types of distracted driving:

  • Visual: taking your eyes off the road
  • Manual: taking your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive: taking your mind off of driving

Examples of Distracted Driving

Distracted driving activities can take your attention away from the road long enough to cause you or another person serious harm. Distractions come in many forms and 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, CD player, or MP3 player

Distracted Driving Consequences

The number of deaths caused by distracted driving has decreased slightly over the past few years, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem. Just how big of an issue is distracted driving in the United States? In 2018:

  • 2,841 people were killed in distracted driving-related crashes, a 10.2% decrease from 2017.1
  • An estimated 400,000 people were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers.1
  • 509 pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vehicle non-occupants were killed in distraction-related crashes.1
  • 13% of all fatal distraction-related crashes involved cell phone use.1
  • An estimated 9.7% of drivers are using a handheld or hands-free cell phone at any given time.3

Young adult and teen drivers are most at-risk for distracting driving. In the U.S. in 2018:

  • 25% of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes were young adults aged 20-29 – more than any other group.1
  • Drivers aged 15-19 were more likely to drive distracted than drivers aged 20 and older.
  • Among drivers involved in fatal crashes, 8% of drivers aged-15-19 were distracted at the time of the crash.1

It is easy to become complacent about distracted driving when thousands of people drive distracted every day. These activities – like looking up directions on a smartphone app, talking to passengers, or even changing the radio station – may seem harmless, especially if you do them every day. But the truth is that they can be dangerous and may prevent you from being a fully alert driver.

Take texting and driving as an example. You may think sending a quick text has little to no effect on your ability to drive, but it’s riskier than you might realize. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. If you’re traveling 55 miles per hour, that’s like driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed.5 Likewise, talking on the phone – even if it’s hands-free – impairs your cognitive and physical ability to drive more than you might think.

However, cell phone use is not the only distraction to blame. So much of the conversation surrounding distracted driving focuses on texting and driving, but cell phone use is only involved in 13% of all fatal distraction-related crashes.1 In reality, there are many other distractions that can take your attention away from the road. The risks associated with these activities are not as well studied as texting and driving, but that does not make them any less dangerous.

Distracted Driving Laws in the U.S.

New York became the first state to ban hand-held phone calls for all drivers in 2001. Since then, many states have followed suit, issuing various cell phone use restrictions. Here’s a look at the distracted driving laws in the U.S.:

  • Hand-held cell phone use: 25 states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held devices while driving. Six states have partial hand-held cell phone use bans in place.7
  • Texting: Texting and driving is against the law for all drivers in 28 states.7
  • All cell phone use: Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia restrict all cell phone use for young or novice drivers.7

Traffic violation laws that relate to distracted driving are split into two categories: primary enforcement or secondary enforcement. A primary enforcement law means an officer can pull a driver over for using a cell phone and issue a citation without any other traffic offense taking place. Cell phone use and texting laws are primary enforcement in 43 states.7

These laws are secondary enforcement in four states, meaning an officer can issue a citation for cell phone use or texting only if the officer stopped the vehicle for another reason.7

Cell Phones and Distracted Driving

Any interaction with a phone can be dangerous when you’re operating a vehicle. Despite the prevalence of distracted driving laws in the U.S., cell phone use while driving appears to be on the rise, according to research from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS). The percentage of passenger vehicle drivers talking on hand-held phones increased from 2.9% in 2017 to 3.2% in 2018.3 Drivers’ visible manipulation of hand-held devices increased from 2% in 2017 to 2.1%.3

These statistics are alarming, given that there is no safe way to use a cell phone and drive. Even if you’re talking hands-free, research shows that you can “look at” but not really “see” up to 50% of the information in your driving environment, like red lights, pedestrians, yield signs, speed limits, and construction signs.8 This is known as “inattention blindness,” and it can do real damage to a driver’s ability to safely navigate on roads.

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Distracted Driving Awareness Month

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) designated April “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.” 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.

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Drivers using cell phones exhibit slower reaction times, delayed braking times, and have a harder time staying within their lanes than drivers who are not distracted.8 In fact, one study found that drivers using cell phones had slower reaction times than drivers with a .08 blood alcohol concentration – the legal intoxication limit.8

Furthermore, estimates indicate that drivers using cell phones fail to see up to 50% of the information in their driving environment, like red lights, pedestrians, “yield” signs, speed limits, and construction signs.  This is known as “inattention blindness,” and it can do real damage to a driver’s ability to safely navigate the road.2 An additional 2013 study from the NHTSA says that visual-manual subtasks performed on handheld phones degrade driver performance and increase the risk of a safety-critical event.8 These subtasks can be as simple as dialing a number, but also include navigating a contacts list, texting, or looking up a map on a smartphone.

Teens and Texting While Driving

The problem with texting and driving is particularly prevalent in younger demographics. In 2019, 39% of high schoolers who drove in the past 30 days admitted to texting or emailing while driving on at least one of those days.9 Students who texted or emailed while drive were also more likely to report other risky transportation behaviors. These students were:

  • More likely to not always wear a seat belt
  • More likely to ride with a driver who had been drinking alcohol
  • More likely to drive after drinking alcohol

Talking is More Dangerous Than You Might Think

It’s easy to think that talking on the phone while on the road isn't a big deal, but it’s actually just the opposite. Holding a conversation with someone can turn into a real distraction and take your attention away from the road. This is because conversation and driving are both thinking tasks, so they are incredibly difficult to do simultaneously.

Contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain is only dedicated to one task at a time, making it much harder to concentrate. Though you may think it’s easy to talk and drive, you are actually giving neither activity your full attention, and are therefore posing a greater danger to others on the road as you talk and drive.

Talking to people in the car is less challenging than talking on the phone because both participants are aware of the road and traffic. Even so, the act of simultaneously conversing and driving is unsafe for all parties.

“Hands-Free” Does Not Mean Risk-Free

Research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) suggests that drivers who use hands-free devices may be less likely to get into a crash than drivers who use hand-held devices. The study found that the primarily cognitive secondary task of talking on a hands-free device does not appear to have any negative effects on the driver.10

Using hands-free devices, like a wireless headset, speakerphone, or earbuds with a built-in microphone, while driving may be safer than hand-held ones, but that doesn’t make them completely risk-free.

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The bottom line is simple

Any task that takes a driver's attention away from the road is considered a distracting behavior. The 5 seconds that you use to type and send a short text message could be just as dangerous as fixing your hair, talking to a passenger, changing the song on your playlist, opening a can of soda, or fiddling with your GPS.

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How to Prevent Distracted Driving

Distracted driving is preventable but it will take a 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 the pledge to stop distracted driving and promise to do the following:

  • Never text and drive
  • Never talk on a handheld cell phone and drive
  • Turn on your phone’s “do not disturb” setting while you are behind the wheel
  • Tell family and friends that you will not be answering your phone or texting when you drive
  • Never call or text someone when you know they will be driving
  • Never use a phone while children are in the car
  • Never eat or drink while driving
  • Look up directions before you start traveling
  • Pull over to read a map or look up directions on a GPS or smartphone
  • If something falls onto the floor while driving, pull over rather than picking it up right away
  • Know the laws in your state that pertain to distracted driving

Old habits die hard, so you'll need to make conscious choices about your behavior in the car and be honest with yourself. If you catch yourself in a distracted moment, ask yourself, “Can this wait?”

It is instinctive to want to look at your phone at the sound of a text message, fiddle with your GPS when you missed a turn, or reach to pick something up that fell on the floor. Next time something like this happens, stop and think before you act. Will taking this action distract you from the road in a dangerous way? Would it be safe to pull over and deal with it, or to wait until you arrive at your destination?

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

Take the Pledge

Correcting your own distracted driving habits is the first step in making the roads safer for yourself, your passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians. The second step is to get the word out about the dangers of distracted driving and the actionable steps people can take to reduce their distracted driving habits.

Teens, adults, parents, teachers, and employers can all take action and help spread awareness about distracted driving.

Teens can…

  • Take the pledge to drive phone and distraction-free.
  • Share the pledge with your friends and family and encourage them to join.
  • Share information and resources about Distracted Driving Awareness Month on social media.
  • Start a Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) chapter at your school.
  • Speak up when you are in the car with someone who is driving distracted. If you feel unsafe, don’t be afraid to say so!

Parents can…

  • Take the pledge to drive phone and distraction-free.
  • Talk seriously with your kids about distracted driving and encourage them to take the pledge as well.
  • Make a family pledge form to help your family commit to driving without distractions.
  • Set a good example by leaving your phone alone when driving with your kids.
  • Know the laws pertaining to distracted driving in your state.

Teachers can…

  • Take the pledge to drive phone and distraction-free.
  • Encourage students to take the pledge.
  • Run a pledge drive.
  • Give an in-class presentation about distracted driving.
  • Hang posters around your school for Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Employers can…

  • Take the pledge to drive phone and distraction-free.
  • Encourage employees to take the pledge.
  • Utilize the 2013 Drive Safely Work Week Toolkit from the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS).
  • Enact a company policy on distracted driving.

Safe driving isn’t limited to pledging to avoid distracted driving habits – it also includes making sure you have adequate car insurance coverage to stay legal and financially protected on the road. Direct Auto is here to help. For a free auto insurance quote or to learn more about affordable coverage, call 1-877-GO-DIRECT (877-463-4732), click, or come in to a Direct location near you.

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