Distracted Driving Equals Dangerous Business

Which driving distraction type puts your life on the line when operating a vehicle?

  • Texting or talking on a cell phone
  • Checking the radio or other media
  • Eating or drinking while driving
  • Brushing your hair or putting on makeup
  • Reading maps or other material
  • Interacting with your passengers
  • Driving after drinking alcohol 


All of the above. Each one distracts you from the one thing you should be focusing on - your driving. 

In this article, we’re going to show you just how dangerous distracted driving really is, as well as give you suggestions for how to avoid it.

What is meant by the term “distracted driving”?

First, let’s be clear on what we mean by “distracted driving”. It’s any activity that diverts attention away from the primary task of driving.

What is the extent of the distracted driving problem?

Based just on police-reported data in the U.S. during 2017, more than 3,100 people died in motor vehicle crashes where distraction was a contributing factor. 

That number doesn’t include crashes where the driver didn’t, or couldn’t, report distractions. The National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use alone accounted for 27% of car crashes in 2015.

Are there penalties for violating distracted driving laws?

Penalties vary, but they can include fines, license suspension, higher insurance costs, and even a prison sentence in the event of injury or death. Most states have penalties in place.

What are the causes of distracted driving?

Driving distractions fall into three distinct categories. (Texting, by the way, involves all three of these.)

  1. Manual distractions where you move your hands from the wheel.
  2. Visual distractions where you focus your eyes away from the road.
  3. Cognitive distractions where your mind wanders from the task of driving.

For many people, texting or talking on a cell phone are the only things that come to mind when they hear about distracted driving. But there are many types of distractions that increase the probability of being involved in a road accident. 

Eating and driving is one type of manual distraction. It carries some risk since you typically need to use one (or both) hands to pick up and eat your food. Spills cause even more distractions!

Visual distractions may be as common as adjusting a radio, or rubbernecking - where drivers slow down to see what happened at a crash site. It only takes a few seconds of looking away from the road to put you at risk.

Cognitive distractions occur when you’re preoccupied, frustrated, “lost in thought” or paying more attention to a conversation than you are to driving. 

AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision, or inattention blindness, where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them - even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Alcohol consumption prior to driving falls into this third category. Deaths from drunk driving have fallen by a third in the last thirty years, but drunk-driving crashes still claim more than 10,000 lives per year.

Alcohol (and drugs) reduce the skills you need to drive safely. 

  • Judgment – the brain-centered activity that stores all of your experiences and knowledge, and uses those quickly when you face a new problem.
  • Vision – the most important sense you use while driving. Alcohol can blur your vision, slow your ability to focus, cause double vision, and hamper your ability to determine how far away an object is, or its speed.
  • Color Distinction – Much information on roads is from colors such as traffic signs, signals, and roadway markings. Alcohol reduces your ability to distinguish colors.
  • Reaction Time – Alcohol and other impairing drugs slow your ability to process information and respond. You’ll be drowsy and less alert.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that “There is no way to get all the alcohol or other drugs out of the circulatory system in order to become sober quickly.” Contrary to what you may have heard, coffee, fresh air, cold showers or eating will not remove alcohol’s effects. 

“Time is the only solution, and it takes about an hour for your body to get rid of one drink. The best advice is to not drive a vehicle of any kind if alcohol or other drugs are consumed - impairment starts with the first drink.” 

It’s obvious that drinking and driving don’t mix, but because driver cell phone use, especially texting, is a major cause of driving risk, we’re going to look at this topic in depth. Research indicates there’s an 8 times greater risk of a crash when texting than when not texting.

How frequently do drivers use their phones while driving?

In one recent study of 3 million anonymous drivers, it was found that drivers used their phones in 88% of the trips analyzed. The amount of use varied, but the average was 3.5 minutes per hour of driving time.

Does texting while driving raise crash risk by a large margin?

Yes, the data is available that demonstrates this clearly.

  • Close to 400,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving.
  • 1 out of every 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by those who text and drive.
  • Texting while driving is 6 times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.

Oddly, most drivers agree that it’s unacceptable to text and drive, but a large percentage of them do it anyway.

“Texting is in its own universe of risk,” said Rich Hanowski, who oversaw a detailed study at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The study revealed that in the moments before a crash or near-crash, drivers typically spent nearly five seconds looking at their devices — enough time at typical highway speeds to cover more than the length of a football field.

It’s not just when you’re manually texting on a phone that dangers exist. Even the hands-free options and talking on a phone while driving is dangerous. Drivers talking on cellphones are four times more likely to cause a crash than other drivers.

When it comes to teen driving, distracted drivers are at extra high risk. Take a close look at these sobering details:

  • Most teens have cell phones and text regularly.
  • 1 in 3 texting teens ages 16-17 say they have texted while driving. 
  • Over half of cell phone-owning teens ages 16-17 say they talk on a cell phone while driving.
  • 48% of all teens ages 12-17 say they’ve been in a car when the driver was texting.
  • 40% say they’ve been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger.

What are the ways to avoid driving distractions for teens?

Car crashes are the #1 cause of death for teens. Not only are they inexperienced, but the addition of modern distractions makes it even riskier for them to drive. Parents can take steps to help teens follow best practices and develop habits now that will keep them safe in the future. 

Great ideas for parents to consider include:

  • Model good behavior. Your teen has observed your driving habits — good or bad — for more than a decade. It’s likely your child will model these behaviors.

  • Establish a pre-trip checklist: Preparation habits reduce the risk of distracted driving. Find sunglasses, set music and temperature controls, adjust mirrors, remove a jacket and set GPS navigation routes. That way, teens can focus their full attention on the main task at hand.

  • Discuss cellphone dangers. Establish a phone placement and use rule with your teens, and make sure they follow it on each trip. Consider requiring that the phone be placed in airplane mode until a trip is complete. Don’t call or text a young motorist when you know he or she is probably at the wheel.

  • Teach respect for drivers: Passengers are the leading cause of distraction-related crashes. Teach younger family members to remain quiet and helpful, no matter who is driving.

  • Establish clear rules about who may ride with a new driver.

  • Set an agreement. Want to drive home the message of safety? Put it in writing to provide a layer of accountability. There’s nothing wrong with consequences for poor driving behavior.

What are recent technologies that cut down on distractions?

Evidence shows that devices that take voice commands are safer than portable devices that require the use of hands, but they can still pull a driver’s attention away. Self-driving cars may sound like a sure method to avoid accidents, but even semi-autonomous vehicles sometimes need human drivers to take over.

Crash avoidance technology built into cars may be the most promising hope of reducing crash risks related to distractions. Warnings redirect a distracted driver's attention back to the roadway. Some systems even attempt to avoid the collision if a driver does not respond fast enough or doesn’t respond at all.

Phone applications that restrict access to electronic devices are great. These apps silence the phone, redirect incoming calls to voicemail or respond to text messages with a preprogrammed message.

Apple released its Do Not Disturb While Driving feature in the fall of 2017 but only about 20% of owners appear to be using it during drive time to eliminate cell phone road distraction. 

Samsung created an app called In-Traffic Reply to prevent distracted driving, since many people struggle with social pressure and feel they must reply quickly to messages and calls.

Samsung’s app activates when it detects the user is driving a car through the smartphone’s sensors such as its GPS. Users can choose from a default reply, an animated response, or their own customized message.

What’s the real key to undistracted driving?

It’s actually pretty straightforward. 

Keep your eyes on the road.

Look where you're going. 

And the plea of one blog called SafeStart is that we not fall into complacency.

“After you’ve been driving for a while, you get comfortable and forget just how dangerous it can be. As a result, you’re more likely to think that you can send a quick text or daydream without putting yourself in danger. “

Written by Anna Kučírková, September 16, 2019.