Distracted driving statistics & facts 2021

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Distracted driving may be most closely associated with cell phone usage, but truthfully, there are multiple behaviors we are likely all guilty of that contribute to this driving hazard. The distracted driving statistics paint a picture of how devastating the results can be when we drive while preoccupied.

Distracted driving statistics

  • 2,841 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2018, according to the CDC.
  • Among the 2,841 deaths, the age group with the highest number of fatalities was age 20-29.
  • The 2,841 includes the fatalities of 506 nonoccupants — meaning pedestrians, bicyclists and others — as a result of distracted drivers.
  • After a steady increase in distracted driving fatalities from 2014 to 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports indicate the number of fatalities finally decreased in 2018.
  • Between 14% to 17% of all crashes are due to distracted driving according to data from the last 10 years.
  • 48 states and the District of Columbia have hand-held cell phone bans in place to combat the occurrence of distracted driving. 37 states and the District of Columbia further restrict young drivers with the use of cell phones.

Distracted driving deaths per year

The latest CDC figures from 2018 indicate 2,841 people were killed due to distracted driving. However, when you look at the total number of distracted driving accidents, the number balloons to 938,000, based on information from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the NHTSA. The overall number for all crashes in 2018 was 6.7 million, which means distracted driving contributed to 15% of the total number.

Table of contents

What is the definition of distracted driving?

In its simplest form, distracted driving includes any kind of activity that takes your attention away from the road when you are behind the wheel. While most associate distracted driving with cell phone usage — certainly a big contributor — distracted driving encompasses numerous categories, including visual, auditory, manual and cognitive distractions.

Distracted driving types

  • Visual distraction: This is a distraction that causes you to move your eyes away from the road. For instance, if you turn to talk to a passenger or look behind you to talk to your children.
  • Auditory distraction: An auditory distraction is when a sound causes your attention to divert away from driving. An example of this is listening to loud music or multiple conversations occurring among the passengers.
  • Manual distraction: A manual distraction is where your hands are moved away from the wheel. An example of this is reaching for a cell phone, or for food and drinks.
  • Cognitive distraction: This refers to when your mind wanders and you are no longer focused on driving.

Distracted driving behaviors and their effects

When discussing the number of distracted driving behaviors, what is most alarming is the sheer number of possibilities for distraction. Many of the distractions involve more than one type, such as cell phone usage, which is a manual, cognitive and visual distraction for drivers.

For example, texting takes your eyes off the road for about five seconds, the length of a football field when you are driving 55 mph. But it also increases the risk of a crash 23 times, according to a study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Another study found when drivers are not paying attention, they fail to comprehend or process information from objects in the roadway, even when looking at them. In other words, when you are distracted, your brain and visual processing are not working together.

Distracted driving statistics through the years

While we may think of driving distracted as a “newer” problem as more cell phones and technology are made available to us in our vehicles, distracted driving has occurred for years.

In April 2006, a study released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the NHTSA found that almost 80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds of the event. The study goes on to find the most common distraction was the use of cellphones, followed by drowsiness.

Interestingly, cell phone usage was noted as far less likely to cause the crash versus other distractions. Reaching for a moving object, such as a falling cup, increased the risk of a crash nine times, whereas talking on the cell phone increased the risk by 1.3 times. This one of the first studies to look at the effects of distracted driving.

In the same year, another study from the University of Utah concluded that talking on a cellphone while driving was as dangerous as drunk driving. The study was challenged at the time because it did not show hands free cell phone usage lessened the likelihood of a crash.

When looking at the data over from 2010 to 2018, the number of fatalities from distracted driving appears to have decreased. For instance, 2018 shows the least amount from the last ten years.

However, when you compare the number of distracted driving accidents in total to the overall number of crashes, distracted driving has remained a steady contributor, between 14% to 17% of all crashes.

Distracted driving statistics over time

Year Distracted driving deaths Distracted driving accidents
2018 2,638* 938,000
2017 3,003 912,000
2016 3,197 905,000
2015 3,242 885,000
2014 2,972 967,000
2013 2,910 904,000
2012 3,098 908,000
2011 3,047 826,000
2010 2,993 900,000

Risk factors

When looking through the data surrounding distracted driving, a few key risk factors begin to emerge.

The first is age. While the assumption by many is that teenagers are the most distracted, the data indicates otherwise. According to the NHTSA, of the fatalities caused by distracted driving in 2018, the 20 to 29 year olds had the highest number of deaths. 25% of the fatalities occurred in this age group, versus 9% of 15 to 19 year olds.

However, other risk factors around teenage drivers should be taken into consideration. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) study in 2019 found 39% of high school students who drove in the past 30 days texted or emailed while driving. It was also more common in the older students than the younger drivers.

Another risk factor is the number of passengers in the car. Research has shown limiting the number of passengers with teen drivers helps reduce the number of fatalities. A national study of 15 to 17 year old drivers showed fatal crashes were 21% lower when zero passengers were allowed and 7% lower when one passenger was allowed. This was compared to when two passengers are allowed, according to Graduated Licensing Laws and Fatal Crashes of Teenage Drivers: A National Study.

How common is distracted driving?

When reviewing the NHTSA’s information from the last 10 years, the number of total crashes due to distracted driving has remained steady. It has also remained a significant contributor as the cause of accidents. Since 2010, at least 14% of all crashes are a result of distracted driving, and the number has pushed as high as 17% (in 2010).

Cell phone usage has played a role in the distracted driving cases, but it may not be the definitive cause that most people assume. In 2018, 13% of the fatalities were directly contributed to cell phone use. There were multiple other distractions noted as the cause of a crash, including:

  • Smoking
  • Other passengers
  • A moving object in the vehicle
  • Adjusting the radio or climate
  • Adjusting another control in the vehicle
  • Reaching for a device or item in the vehicle
  • Distracted by someone or something
  • Eating and drinking
  • Not paying attention
  • Daydreaming

While cell phone usage — including texting — does contribute to overall crashes and fatalities, it should be noted there are numerous other distractions as equally dangerous while driving.

Drowsiness is another major factor contributing to distracted driving crashes. One study conducted by the NHTSA in 2015 showed 90,000 crashes were due to drowsiness alone.

The consequences of distracted driving

Unfortunately, distracted driving has a wide range of consequences. While some are more severe than others, the effects can last a lifetime.

Each state has different laws when it comes to distracted driving. While some states ban hand-held cell phone usage all together, 48 states have a ban on texting while driving. If you are caught violating these laws, consequences range from fines, to points against your license. You could also face license suspension and even jail time, if it results in a crash.

State-by-state distracted driving laws

How distracted driving impacts car insurance rates

Some states, like Kansas, can charge you with reckless driving. This could make it difficult when you are applying for a job and certainly can affect you when shopping around for car insurance. With any points added to your license, this could cause your car insurance rates to increase.

On a national level, distracted driving has caused insurance premiums to increase 16% since 2011, according to The Center for Policy and Research.

Distracted driving can easily cause accidents, which also has a significant impact on rates, as shown below:

Driving record Average full coverage premium Average minimum coverage premium
Clean driving record $1,674 $563
DUI conviction $2,877 $993
Accident $2,299 $803
Speeding ticket $1,869 $633

How to prevent distracted driving

As eye-opening as the distracted driving statistics may be for some, it is helpful to understand there are actions you can take to prevent distracted driving, including:

  • Put your phone away. If you need to talk or text, pull over and complete your call.
  • Use a designated “texter.” If you are driving with someone, have a passenger assigned to read and send your text messages.
  • Limit the number of passengers you allow in your vehicle.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while driving.
  • No multitasking. Make a promise not to multitask and stick to it.
  • Properly secure your kids and pets. Make sure everyone is properly buckled in and retrained, not only for their safety, but to prevent distraction.
  • Program navigation beforehand. Before you hit the road, put your designation into your GPS prior to driving.
  • Encourage others to not text and drive. If you see someone texting and driving, speak up and encourage them to put the phone away.
  • Talk with your employer. Let your employer know you need to limit your phone conversations and texting while driving.
  • Refrain from distracting tasks. Avoid the temptation of activities such as grooming, reading and applying makeup.
Written by
Sara Coleman
Insurance Contributor
Sara Coleman has three years of experience in writing for insurance domains such as Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, Reviews.com, Coverage.com and numerous other personal finance sites. She writes about insurance products such as auto, homeowners, renters and disability.