Distracted driving

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Distracted driving is the act of driving while engaged in other activities—such as looking after children, texting, talking on the phone or to a passenger, eating, or reading—that take the driver’s attention away from the road. All distractions compromise the safety of the driver, passengers, bystanders and those in other vehicles.

According to the United States Department of Transportation, "text messaging while driving creates a crash risk 23 times higher than driving while not distracted."[1] Despite these statistics, more than 37% of drivers have admitted to sending or receiving text messages while driving, and 18% admit doing so regularly.[2]


Distractions while driving can be separated into three distinct groups: visual, manual, and cognitive. Visual distraction involves taking one's eyes off the road, while manual distraction involves taking one's hands off the wheel. Cognitive distraction occurs when an individual's focus is not directly on the act of driving and his/her mind "wanders".[3]

Distractions influenced by technology, especially text messaging or talking on the phone, can require a combination of visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver, thus making these types of distractions particularly dangerous.[4]

Exposure assessment[edit]

According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2008, nearly 11% of drivers—approximately one million individuals—used a mobile device at some time. Additionally, 35-50% of drivers admit to cell phone use while driving, while 90% of drivers fear those who do.[5]

According to a HealthDay poll from November 2011, most adults who drive admit to engaging in distracted driving behaviors. This poll, which included 2,800 American adults, found that:

  • Approximately 86% of drivers have admitted to eating or drinking while driving.
  • Approximately 37% of drivers have texted while driving at least once, while 18% of drivers have said they have formed the habit of doing it often.
  • Approximately 41% of adult drivers have set or changed a GPS system while driving, and 21% do it “more frequently.”
  • Approximately 36% of adult drivers have used a map as road guidance while driving.
  • At least 1 out of every 5 drivers have admitted to combing or styling their hair while driving.
  • Approximately 14% of drivers have applied makeup while driving.
  • Approximately 13% of adult drivers have browsed the Internet while driving.[2]

Data from this poll also revealed that younger drivers have a greater tendency to be involved in distracted driving than older individuals. Additionally, males have a greater tendency to engage in distracted driving activities, including driving while drowsy, after drinking alcohol, while reading a map, using a GPS system, or using the Internet.

Hazard assessment[edit]

A study in 2013 estimated the following risks of a crash or near-crash among novice drivers:[6]

Activity Odds ratio
Dialing a cell phone 8.3
Reaching for a cell phone 7.1
Sending or receiving text messages 3.9
Reaching for an object other than a cell phone 8.0
Looking at a roadside object 3.9
Eating 3.0

Among experienced drivers, dialing a cell phone is estimated to increase the risk of a crash or near-crash by odds ratio 2.5.[6]

In September 2010, the NHTSA released a report on distracted driving fatalities for 2009. The NHTSA considers distracted driving to include the following distractions: other occupants in the car, eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting radio, adjusting environmental control, reaching for objects in car, and cell phone use. The report stated that 5,474 people were killed and 448,000 individuals were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2009. Of those individuals killed, 995 were believed to be killed by drivers distracted by cell phones. The report does not state whether this is an under or over representation of the level of cell phone use amongst drivers, or whether there is a causal relationship.[7]

The NHTSA states that 80% of accidents and 16% of highway deaths are the result of distracted drivers. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 1.6 million (25%) of crashes annually are due to cell phone use, and another 1 million (18%) traffic accidents are due to text messaging while driving. These numbers equate to one accident every 24 seconds attributed to distracted driving by cell phone use. The NSC also reported that speaking on a cell phone while driving reduces focus on the road and the act of driving by 37%, irrespective of hands-free cell phone operation.[8]

The US Department of Transportation estimates that reaching for a cell phone distracts a driver for 4.6 seconds, or the equivalent of the length of a football field, if the vehicle is traveling 55 miles per hour.[9] It has been shown that reaching for something inside the vehicle increases the accident risk by 9 times. Texting while driving increases the risk of an auto accident by 23 times.

Driving with a dog can be very dangerous. According to a national study by AAA (American Automobile Association), 31 percent of the people that responded admitted to being distracted by their dogs. Fifty-nine percent of people that were surveyed had participated in at least one distracting behavior while driving with their dog. Eighty percent of respondents said they'd driven with their pets, and only 17 percent said they used any form of pet restraint. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that looking away from the road for only two seconds doubles a driver's risk of being in a crash.[10]

A 2003 study of U.S. crash data states that driver inattention is estimated to be a factor in 20–50 percent of all police-reported crashes. Driver distraction has been determined to be a contributing factor in estimated 8–13 percent of all vehicle crashes. Of distraction-related accidents, cell phone use may range from 1.5 to 5 percent of contributing factors, according to a 2003 study.[11]

"Outside person, object, or event" (commonly known as rubbernecking) is the most reported cause of distraction related accidents, followed by "adjusting radio/cassette player/CD." "Using/dialing cell phone" is the eighth most reported cause of distraction-related accidents, according to the study.

According to the article "NHTSA distracted driving guidelines" in the August 2013 Motor Age magazine issue, the NHTSA released voluntary guidelines covering the use of in-car infotainment and communication devices, that have some bearing on connected car technologies and telematics. "Proposed items include disabling manual text entry and video-based systems prohibiting the display of text messages, social media or Web pages while the car is in motion or in gear. The goal: Don't take the driver's eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time, or 12 seconds in total by limiting drivers to six inputs or touches to the screen in 12 seconds". In 2011, according to the NHTSA, 1/3 of the accidents caused by distracted driving.[12]

Driving and eating is very distracting. A correspondent for the Boston Globe, Lucia Huntington, stated "Distracted driving is the cause of many of today’s traffic accidents. In a world of ever-extending commutes and busy schedules, eating while operating a vehicle has become the norm, but eating while behind the wheel proves costly for many drivers. Soups, unwieldy burgers, and hot drinks can make steering a car impossible. Although the danger of eating while driving are apparent and well known, drivers ignore them repeatedly, accounting for many crashes and near-misses." During a study done by NHTSA, the NHTSA blames "inattentive driving" for 80% of all car accidents. 2.1 percent of the total were daydreaming, personal hygiene, and eating. The location of where people live also causes people to eat and drive. Now that people are now living in the suburbs, this has caused a longer commute to work for some. A study done by Toyota found that truck drivers manage their lives out of their trucks. With this fast-paced life style everyone is always on the move, finding time for food can be difficult, but saving time is not worth risking your life or someone else’s.[13]

A study by Monash University found that having one or more children in the car was 12 times more distracting than talking on a mobile phone while driving.[14]

A study by AAA found that talking to a passenger was as distracting as talking on a hands-free mobile phone.[15]

Today's youth is being blamed for most of the distracted driving, but really adults are at fault too. More than 600 parents and caregivers were surveyed in two Michigan emergency rooms while their children, ages 1–12 years, were being treated for any reason. During this survey, almost 90% of drivers reported engaging in at least one technology-related distraction while driving their children in the past month. The parents who disclosed using the phone—hand held or hands free—while driving were 2.6 times likely to have reportedly been involved in a motor vehicle crash.[16]

Risk characterization[edit]

The rising annual rate of fatalities from distracted driving corresponds to both the number of cell phone subscriptions per capita, as well as the average number of text messages per month. From 2009 to 2011, the amount of text messages sent increased by nearly 50%.[17]

Distracted driving offenders are more likely to report driving while drowsy, going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, driving aggressively, not stopping at a red light or stop sign, and driving while under the influence of alcohol.[18]

The American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that younger drivers are overwhelmingly more likely than older drivers to text message and talk on cell phones while driving. However, the proportion of drivers aged 35–44 who reported talking on cell phones while driving is not significantly lower than those drivers aged 18–24 who report doing so.[19]

Accident risk assessment[edit]

In 2011, Shutko and Tijerina reviewed a large naturalistic study of in field operational tests on cars, heavy product vehicles, and commercial vehicles and buses and concluded that:

  • Most of the collisions and near misses that occur involve inattention as a contributing factor.
  • Visual inattention (looking away from the road ahead) is the single most significant factor contributing to crash and near crash involvement.
  • Cognitive distraction associated with listening to, or talking on, a handheld or hands-free device is associated with crashes and near miss events to a lesser extent than is commonly believed, and such distractions may even enhance safety in some instances.[20]


Distracted driving is a growing problem in the United States. It is responsible for many deaths that could otherwise be prevented, especially in the younger generation of drivers. In 2008, there were 23,059 accidents involving 16- to 19-year-olds, which led to 194 deaths. Of these deaths, 10% were reported to be caused by distracted driving. Throughout the United States, over 3,000 deaths and 416,000 injuries annually can be attributed to distracted driving.[21] To further illustrate the seriousness of this “epidemic,” driving while texting is about 6 times more likely to result in an accident than drinking while driving. Not only is distracted driving more likely to result in an accident, but the risk of injury requiring hospital visitation is 3-5 times greater than the rate for other accidents.[22]


Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia (DC) have passed laws related to distracted driving.[23] Additionally, 37 states, DC and Guam have banned text messaging for all drivers, and 10 states, DC and Guam prohibit drivers from holding cell phones while driving.[24] Each state varies in the restrictions placed upon drivers.[25]

Current US laws are not strictly enforced. Punishments are so mild that people pay little attention. Drivers are not categorically prohibited from using phones while driving. For example, using earphones to talk and texting with a hands-free device remain legal.[23]

Little evidence shows that laws have led to driver compliance. Hand-held mobile phone usage fell in New York in the five months after the hands-free law took effect. However, it returned to near the prior level by the 16-month mark.[26]

Another approach is through education. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and NHTSA conducted a series of initiatives and campaigns, such as “One Text or Call Could Wreck It all,” “Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks” advertisement, and “Faces of Distracted Driving.” The “Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks” commercials advocate safe driving habits via vivid scenarios,[27] attempting to make the consequences of distraction more tangible. The “Faces of Distracted Driving” is a DOT online video series that focuses on individuals who have been personally affected.[28]

Insurance providers offer tools such as Telematics2.0 and education.[29]

The Research and Innovative Technology Administration is considering technologies to enhance transportation safety and reduce distracted driving via a program called the “Connected Vehicle Technology Challenge.”[30][31]

Some employers have taken steps to reduce distracted driving beyond current legislation. The military requires only hands-free use of phones. Freight companies ban cell phone use while driving.[32]

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood introduced his "Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving," a plan for reducing distracted driving accidents and related deaths.[33] This blueprint encourages the eleven states without distracted driving laws to enact such legislation. It challenges the auto industry to adopt guidelines to reduce the potential for distraction. It recommended that states partner with driving educators on new curriculum materials.[34]


Automakers are providing dashboard and heads-up displays to allow driving information to be available without the driver looking away from the road. Gesture- and voice-based interfaces simplify controlling the vehicle and its services. Mobile applications such as DriveScribe and TextLimit disable communication when the phone is moving. A similar approach is under investigation by telecom providers.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations". U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Cell Phone & Texting Accident Statistics". Edgar Snyder & Associates. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  3. ^ "Three main types of distraction". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  4. ^ "Texting while driving". U.S Department of Transportation. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  5. ^ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, September 2010 
  6. ^ a b Klauer, S. G.; Guo, F.; Simons-Morton, B. G.; Ouimet, M. C.; Lee, S. E.; Dingus, T. A. (2014). "Distracted Driving and Risk of Road Crashes among Novice and Experienced Drivers". New England Journal of Medicine 370 (1): 54–59. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1204142. PMID 24382065.  edit
  7. ^ U.S. DOT National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Distacted Drive Report released September 2010
  8. ^ Understanding the Distracted Brain, National Safety Council, March 2010 
  9. ^ Distracted Driving: What You Need to Know, US Department of Transportation, retrieved July 18, 2012 
  10. ^ "Driving with your dog can be dangerous: here's why." Dog Watch 14.10 (2010): 2. General OneFile. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.
  11. ^ Eby, David; Lidia Kostyniuk (May 2003). "Driver distraction and crashes: An assessment of crash databases and review of the literature" (PDF). The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. 
  12. ^ Albright, Brian. "NHTSA distracted driving guidelines." Motor Age Aug. 2013: 12. General OneFile. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
  13. ^ Huntington, Lucia. "Eating Behind the Wheel Is a Distraction." Distracted Driving. Ed. Stefan Kiesbye. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012. At Issue. Rpt. from "The Real Distraction at the Wheel." Boston Globe 14 Oct. 2009. Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.
  14. ^ "Children more distracting than mobile phones, Monash University". Monash.edu. 2013-10-03. Retrieved 2013-12-10. 
  15. ^ Measuring cognitive distractions
  16. ^ Kilgore, Christine. "Parents--not just teens--are distracted while driving." Pediatric News July 2013: 4. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
  17. ^ Wireless Quick Facts, International Association for Wireless Telecommunications, December 2011 
  18. ^ Beck KH, Yan F, Wang MQ. Cell phone users, reported crash risk, unsafe driving behaviors and dispositions: a survey of motorists in Maryland. J Safety Res. 2007;38:683-8
  19. ^ Cell Phones and Driving: Research Update, Automobile Association of America, December 2008 
  20. ^ Shutko, J. and Tijerina, L., (2011), Ford's Approach to Managing Driver Attention: SYNC and MyFord Touch, Ergonomics In Design, Vol. 19, No. 4, October 2011, pp. 13-16
  21. ^ Get the Facts. Available at http://www.distraction.gov/content/get-the-facts/facts-and-statistics.html. Accessed June 28, 2012.
  22. ^ McEvoy SP, Stevenson MR, McCartt AT, et al. Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case-crossover study. BMJ. 2005;331(7514):428
  23. ^ a b Ibrahim, J.K.; Anderson, E. D., Burris, S. C.,Wagenaar, A. C. (2011). "State Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices: Distracted-Driving Provisions, 1992–2010.". American Journal Of Preventive Medicine 40 (6): page.659–665. 
  24. ^ "State laws". U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  25. ^ "Distracted Driving Laws". Public Health Law Research project. 
  26. ^ Kolko,, J.D. (2009). "The Effects of Mobile Phones and Hands-Free Laws on Traffic Fatalities.". B.E. Journal Of Economic Analysis & Policy: Contributions To Economic Analysis & Policy, 9 (1): page.1–26. 
  27. ^ "Public Awareness Campaigns". U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved 26 April 2012. 
  28. ^ "DOT Launches Faces of Distracted Driving Site as Part of Ongoing Awareness Campaign". Professional Safety 56 (1): 12. 2011. 
  29. ^ "Adverse Effects of Distracted Driving in Auto Transport Industry". Transportrankings.com. Retrieved 2013-12-10. 
  30. ^ Guest Blogger RITA Administrator Peter Appel: Connected Vehicle Technology Challenge seeks your vision for transportation applications, DOT Fastlane, January 25, 2011.
  31. ^ In-vehicle technology to address distracted driver, Johns Hopkins Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety, April 18, 2011.
  32. ^ National Safety Council. Employer Cell Phone Policies. Available at www.nsc.org. Accessed June 15, 2012. Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS): Cell Phone Policies of Companies with Best Fleet Safety Performance. Available at www.trafficsaftey.org. June 15, 2012
  33. ^ "U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Issues 'Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving,' Announces $2.4 Million for California, Delaware Pilot Projects" at nhtsa.gov
  34. ^ "U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Issues ‘Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving’". U.S. Department of Transportation. 7 June 2012. 
  35. ^ Stay informed today and every day (2013-11-30). "Monitor: Fatal distraction". The Economist. Retrieved 2013-12-10. 

External links[edit]

  • distraction.gov – Official US Government website for distracted driving