Distracted driving is the act of driving while engaging in other activities which distract the driver's attention away from the road. Distractions are shown to compromise the safety of the driver, passengers, pedestrians, and people in other vehicles.
Cellular device use while behind the wheel is one of the most common forms of distracted driving. According to the United States Department of Transportation, "texting while driving creates a crash risk 23 times higher than driving while not distracted." Studies and polls regularly find that over 30% of United States drivers had recently texted and driven. Distracted driving is particularly common among, but not exclusive to, younger drivers.
Types of distractions
Distractions while driving can be separated into three distinct groups: visual, manual, and cognitive. Visual distractions involve taking one's eyes off the road, such as looking at a GPS system or checking a child's seat belt in the rear view mirror. Manual distractions involve taking one's hands off the wheel, such as searching for something in a bag, eating or drinking, grooming, or changing radio stations. Cognitive distractions occur when an individual is not mentally focused on the act of driving. Some distractions can combine some or all of these groups, such as texting and calling on one's cell phone.
Driving distractions can greatly vary in form and severity. They range from the use of cell phones and other electronics to rubbernecking, carrying passengers including children and pets in the vehicle, eating while driving, and searching for misplaced items.
A 2016 study found that nearly 50 percent of drivers admitted to, while driving, reading a text message, sending a text message, checking their phone for directions, or using social media. Overall, nearly 60 percent of respondents admitted to using their cell phone at least once while driving. Older age was strongly correlated with decreased cell phone distraction scores.
A 2018 survey of more than 3,300 drivers by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety illustrates a disconnect in driver behavior. While a large percentage of drivers (95.6%) said texting or emailing while driving is unacceptable, nearly half (49%) report talking on a hand-held device and nearly 35% have sent a text or an email while driving.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011 study found that 69% of respondent drivers between the ages of 18 and 64 admitted to calling on the phone while driving in the month before the survey and that 31% sent or read an email or text message.
A Harris Poll survey in February 2015 showed differences in distracted driving by United States region with 24 percent frequency in the Northeast, 28 percent in the Midwest, 30 percent in the West, and 35 percent in the South. 4% more males texted and drove than females. 51 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds texted and drove, 39 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds texted and drove, 33 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds texted and drove, 14 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds texted and drove, and 7 percent of people 65 years old or older texted and drove.
According to a HealthDay poll from November 2011, most adults who drive confess to engaging in distracted driving behaviors. In addition to use of electronic devices, behaviors admitted include eating or drinking, to which 86% of drivers admitted; combing or styling hair, to which at least 20 percent admitted; and applying makeup, to which 14 percent admitted. The poll also reported that younger drivers and males had higher rates of distraction. A study from the president of Hagerty Insurance Agency found that coffee, hot soup, tacos, chili, hamburgers, and barbecued foods were the most dangerous to try and eat while driving.
According to a study by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 15 percent of reported crashes were due to a teenage driver distracted by talking with a passenger. Another 12 percent of crashes occurred because a teenager was either talking, texting or searching for information on a cellphone while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that distracted driving accounts for 25 percent of all crashes involving teenage drivers.
|Calling on a phone||8.3|
|Reaching for a phone||7.1|
|Sending or receiving text messages||3.9|
|Reaching for an object other than a phone||8.0|
|Looking at a roadside object (Rubbernecking)||3.9|
|Interaction with radio (or head unit)||1.0|
|Total cell (handheld)||3.6||6.4%|
|Cell dial (handheld)||12.2||0.1%|
|Cell text (handheld)||6.1||1.9%|
A 2003 study of U.S. crash data estimates that distracted driving contributed to 8-13 percent of police-reported crashes, with phone use sourcing 1.5 to 5 percent of these. Driver inattention contributed to an estimated 20-50 percent of crashes. The most-reported cause of distraction-related accidents was "outside person, object, or event" (commonly known as rubbernecking), followed by "adjusting radio/cassette player/CD". "Using a phone" was the eighth most reported cause. In 2011, according to the NHTSA, 1/3 of accidents were caused by distracted driving.
The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 1.6 million (25%) of crashes annually are due to calling on a smartphone, and another 1 million (18%) are caused by texting while driving. These numbers equate to one accident caused every 24 seconds by driving distracted from phone use. It also reported that speaking in a call while driving reduces focus on the road and the act of driving by 37 percent, irrespective of hands-free calling operation. Calling on a phone is estimated to increase the risk of experienced drivers crashing or nearly crashing by a factor of 2.5. The US Department of Transportation estimates that reaching for a phone distracts a driver for 4.6 seconds; at 55 miles per hour, this could equal a football field of distance.
A study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that talking to a passenger was as distracting as talking in a call on a hands-free smartphone, and a study by Monash University found that having one or more children in the car was 12 times more distracting than calling while driving. Devid Petrie of the Huffington Post deemed backseat children passengers the worst distraction for drivers, and recommended pulling over in case of crying children. According to an AAA study, 80 percent of respondents with dogs drove with them, but 31 percent of these admitted to being distracted by them, and only 17 percent used any form of pet restraints.
Boston Globe correspondent Lucia Huntington stated that "eating while operating a vehicle has become the norm, but...proves costly for many drivers. Soups, unwieldy burgers, and hot drinks can make steering a car impossible. Although the dangers...are apparent and well known, drivers ignore them repeatedly, accounting for many crashes and near-misses."
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 sent per month. From 2009 to 2011, the number of text messages sent increased by nearly 50 percent.
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.
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. 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 conducting phone calls while driving were 2.6 times likely to have reportedly been involved in a motor vehicle crash.
Accident risk assessment
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.
Effects on the brain
Brain activity without distractions
The somatosensory association, parietal and visual cortices are not significantly activated during simple driving tasks, like driving straight or making a right-hand turn. A left turn with no oncoming traffic presents a little more activation in the premotor cortex, somatosensory area, visual and parietal cortices, as well as the cerebellum. When oncoming traffic is introduced while trying to make a left-hand turn, there is a significant activation multiple bilateral regions in the mid-posterior brain, which includes motor and premotor areas, visual, parietal, and somatosensory regions, and the cerebellum.
Brain activity with distractions
When something as simple as answering general knowledge true-or-false questions are introduced as a distraction to the driver, the brain activity is increased during both straight driving and when turning left with the presence of oncoming traffic. When just driving straight, which showed very little brain activation without distraction, is paired with answering simple questions, there is a significant increase in brain activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex bilaterally, along with the auditory cortex and parietal lobes. There was also decreased activation in occipital-visual regions of the brain. When a left turn plus traffic, which already yielded the most activation of the undistracted driving tasks, had audio tasks added to the tasking, auditory, motor, somatosensory, visual, parietal, and cerebellar regions were activated. There was also significant additional activation bilaterally in the anterior brain areas, mainly in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and frontal polar region.
The areas of the brain that have decreased activation during a moment of multitasking are areas of spatial processing and spatial attention. Because of this, it is important for drivers to focus on only the task at hand, driving. Even though driving becomes a primary cognitive function, when drivers are distracted (e.g.on their cell phones, talking to passengers, or fiddling with the radio), the areas of the brain that need to be activated to safely operate the vehicle are not.
The rate of incidents associated with distracted driving is growing in the United States. According to an NHTSA report, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in the United States from motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015. The report states that 80% of accidents and 16% of highway deaths are the results of distracted drivers.
Incidents related to distracting driving have been particularly common among young drivers. In 2008, there were 23,059 accidents involving 16- to 19-year-olds, which led to 194 deaths. Of these deaths, 10 percent 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. Driving while texting is about 4 times more likely to result in an accident than drinking while driving, while the risk of injury requiring hospital visitation is 3–5 times greater than for other types of accidents.
Some distracted driving accidents include:
- In 2013, numerous people were also killed in the Santiago de Compostela derailment where the driver had been using the telephone.
- In 2017, Thames Valley Police in England issued a video of a truck driver who killed a family by driving while using his mobile phone.
- In 2018, an Apple developer crashed his vehicle on a mountain view highway while interacting with a video-game on the mobile phone of his employer.
Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) have passed laws related to distracted driving. Additionally, 41 states, DC and Guam have banned text messaging for all drivers, and 10 states, DC and Guam prohibit drivers from holding phones while driving. However, no state currently completely bans all use of the device, including hands-free. Each state varies in the restrictions placed upon drivers.
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.
Laws have not led to consistent driver compliance. Hand-held 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.
Education and communication
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, 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.
In the August 2013 issue of Motor Age magazine, the NHTSA released voluntary guidelines covering the use of in-car infotainment and communication devices. "Proposed items include disabling manual text entry and video-based systems prohibiting the display of text messages, social media or webpages 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".
The cellular network providers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and several hundred other organizations have teamed up to create the "It Can Wait" campaign, that started on May 20, 2013 (Wireless Leaders Unite for "It Can Wait" Campaign to Curb Texting While Driving, 2013). The campaign is an attempt to inform young drivers that no phone call or text message is worth a life.
An accident analysis and prevention study found that the driver having quality and healthy relationships with passengers results in better driving. While passengers have been found to pose a dangerous distraction to drivers, the quality of their relationships can make for a different outcome. Teens who drove with friends they had a good quality relationship with were found to drive safer and less distracted. This is because quality friends did not negatively influence or persuade the driver but supported them.
A similar study focused on parental relationships also found quality relationships make for better driving. Involved parents who monitored their teens driving were found to have teens that were less likely to engage in risky driving behaviors. The same study also concluded a teenager who shared a vehicle with a family member was less likely to drive unsafely or while distracted compared to a teenager who solely owned a vehicle.
Some employers have taken steps to reduce distracted driving beyond current legislation; The military permits only hands-free use of phones. Freight companies ban phone use while driving. In October 2009, President Obama signed an executive order banning federal employees from sending texts in government cars.
In 2020, the NTSB clarified that
Strong company policy, with strict consequences for using portable electronic devices while driving, is an effective strategy in helping to prevent the deadly consequences of distracted driving.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood introduced his "Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving," a plan for reducing distracted driving accidents and related deaths. 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.
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 may disable communication, blank the screen or limit access to applications or programs when the device is in motion. A similar approach is under investigation by telecom providers.
On January 7, 2014, an article in CNNMoney announced a partnership between AT&T and car manufacturers Audi and Tesla. AT&T head of emerging devices, Glenn Lurie, told CNNMoney that these advancements reflect a major step forward in converting cars form mindless machines to intelligent gadgets. AT&T says everything is going to be connected. The car will be easier to use, safer, reduce distracted driving, and deliver infotainment. When asked, "Will these innovations increase distracted driving?", Mr. Laurie replied, "Visual distractions will be limited to passengers as drivers can keep their hands on the wheel". One will need only their voice to send messages and communicate with their car.
Toyota is working on perfecting technology that will monitor driver's eyelids to ensure that they are looking at the road. Other vehicle manufacturers are also working on similar technology. For example, General Motors has a pilot program to monitor distraction. Likewise, Jaguar Land Rover monitors the driver's eyes to create the 3D image for its "Virtual Windscreen".
Cellebrite has reportedly developed a textalyzer device that can be used to scan a vehicle driver's smartphone after an accident or incident to determine whether the phone was used to make calls, send text messages and/or emails when the vehicle was in motion.
Transport for New South Wales launched a mobile phone detection camera program in collaboration with technology start-up Acusensus to detect drivers using their mobile phones while driving. In the first three months of going live, 9,000,000 vehicles were checked and more than 30,000 warning letters were issued.
The use of smartphone applications designed to stop certain phone behaviours while driving is an emerging countermeasure for distracted driving. A study at the Queensland University of Technology examined 29 apps that aim to stop drivers picking up their mobiles and reading and answering texts or engaging in phone calls behind the wheel, and found that many of these road safety apps simply 'hide' incoming texts and calls – they silence notifications so that the driver is unaware someone is trying to reach them, with the app sending an auto-reply to say the driver cannot answer. In addition, Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios et al  found that current applications to prevent mobile phone use while driving might not fully prevent visual-manual interactions such as in-car streaming music interfaces or GPS devices, which is not always compatible with driving.
Studies have shown rumble road strips have been effective in reducing crashes due to distracted driving. A rumble strip is a section of grooved pavement. When driven on, a rumble strip makes the vehicle shake and creates tire noise. It is intended to redirect the driver's attention back on the road. Rumble strips are currently the most effective method to reducing crashes caused by distracted drivers. On rural lanes rumble strips were proven to reduce crash injury from 38% to 50%, while on urban roads they were proven to reduce it by 50% to 90%. In the United States, rumble strips exist in almost all states. However, it is up to each individual state’s government as to where they decide to place these rumble strips within their state.
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