Distracted Driving

Here’s Why You Should pay Attention


Number of fatalities in America in 2016 due to distracted driving (NHTSA)

Kate Morgan remembers the incident vividly. She was driving to her parents’ house in suburban New Jersey, alone, with her cell phone on her lap.

It was around 10 p.m. “I’m not even sure exactly who I was texting, but it definitely wasn’t important,” recalls Morgan, a Pennsylvania-based journalist who was a teenager at the time. But she clearly recollects what happened next: The road beneath her curved, while she continued to drive straight. By the time she looked up, just a couple of seconds later, her car was hurtling onto someone’s lawn and crashing into a mailbox—which went flying over the hood of her station wagon.

She was uninjured but horribly shaken. “On an average afternoon, the front lawns on that street are full of kids. I know how bad it could have been,” says Morgan (who paid the homeowner for the damage).

“I don’t text and drive anymore.”


Number of fatalities in America in 2016 due to distracted driving (NHTSA)


Potential amount of crashes in the U.S. each year that could be avoided if we eliminate distraction (PNAS)

By The Numbers
Stories like Morgan’s—many of which end far more tragically—are all too common these days. The statistics are grave and alarming: Distracted driving was the cause of 3,450 American deaths in 2016, as well as 391,000 injuries in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Yet many people continue the practice. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that American drivers engage in distracting activities more than 50 percent of the time they’re behind the wheel—effectively doubling their crash risk.

That risk translates into accidents. The same study concludes that 4 million of the 11 million crashes that occur in the U.S. every year would potentially be avoided if we could eliminate distraction.

“Make no mistake,” says Maureen Vogel, a representative for the National Safety Council (NSC). “Distracted driving is an epidemic.”


Potential amount of crashes in the U.S. each year that could be avoided if we eliminate distraction (PNAS)


—MAUREEN VOGEL, National Safety Council


Do You Know The Facts?

Q: What’s the most common distracting behavior of drivers at a stoplight?


A: Eating & drinking

Source: IIHS

Q: Reaching for, answering, or dialing a cell phone increases the risk of a crash (or near crash) by how much?


A: Any of them triples your risk.

Source: IIHS

Q: How many teens who text say they have texted while driving?


A: One in three. It increases their risk of a crash 23 times.

Source: NHTSA

Q: Which passengers cause teens to exhibit the riskiest behaviors? Family, friends, or no passengers?


A: Friends, especially when there are two or more.

Source: NHTSA

How Did We Get Here?
Concerns over distracted driving go all the way back to the 1930s and the early days of car radios. Soon after their debut, radios became the focus of a public safety outcry, by lawmakers who worried about their potential to preoccupy drivers.

That may have been a losing battle, but in later decades, public safety advocates turned their attentions to other more treacherous safety issues—like drunk driving and forgoing seatbelts. Citizens rallied together, companies rolled out massive public safety campaigns, and lawmakers acted. The effort helped: Traffic fatalities related to those two risky driving behaviors dropped (though, together, they still accounted for more than 20,000 fatalities in 2016, reports NHTSA).

So where’s the outrage around the distracted-driving epidemic? The memorable slogans? The billboards on every highway? “Progress is being made,” says Vogel. “Laws are getting stricter, and lots of organizations—including government agencies, nonprofits and tech companies—are helping to create a growing awareness of the problem.”

But experts agree that too many drivers keep texting and giving in to other distractions. Why do we do it? And what can we all do about it?

Video: Avoiding Your Cell Phone While Driving
Play Button More: Managing
Emotions While Driving
Play Button More: Managing
Passengers While Driving


Why That Ping Is Addicting
There’s no question that the advent of high-tech devices like smartphones has escalated the problem of distracted driving to unprecedented heights. The numbers from NHTSA are staggering. The agency estimates that at any given moment during daylight hours, approximately 660,000 U.S. drivers are using cell phones while driving—a number that greatly increases the potential for road accidents and fatalities.

The solution may be obvious—put down the phone—but it’s not that simple.

“As humans, we’re hardwired to respond to our phone signals,” says Dr. David Greenfield, a professor of psychiatry in Connecticut and the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. Every time we hear the familiar ping of a new message, he says, our brains release dopamine (a neurotransmitter that signals pleasure reward in our brains). That chemical has an even higher “anticipatory elevation” response and provides the same sort of rush we experience when we partake in other pleasurable activities.

Even having the phone within eyesight can act as a trigger to use it. “It’s been shown that the mere presence of a phone is going to compel you to pick it up and use it,” says Greenfield, “no matter where you are or what you’re doing.”

It’s not just visual distractions that are problematic for drivers. The NSC has collected more than 30 studies showing that even using a hands-free device to engage in conversation has a measurably adverse effect on driver responsiveness.

That’s because these nonverbal stimuli cause us to experience “inattentional blindness,” according to Daniel Simons, a psychology professor in Illinois. When our attention is focused on one thing (like talking on our phones), it’s much more difficult to focus on something else (like driving). Basically, we get tunnel vision.

“There are limits on how much information we can take in from our world,” says Simons, “and anything that uses up some of our limited attention detracts from our awareness of our surroundings.”

So picking up your phone while driving, even if it’s for “just a quick text,” is a risky prospect; and NHTSA offers this sobering reminder: A single text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field…with your eyes closed.

Before you start driving, put the phone on silent and stow it out of reach; or give it to a co-pilot.

Keep Calm Or Don’t Carry On
Also detrimental to our ability to concentrate while driving is any sort of heightened emotional state—feeling upset or stressed, for example. One of the most staggering findings from the PNAS study: Driving while visibly angry, distressed or sad makes drivers almost 10 times more likely to get into an accident.

It makes sense that extreme emotions could take our attention away from the road. (This video shows how it happens.) But our emotions can be affected by more than just having a bad day at work. Even seeing negative or positive images can impact our emotions and affect our driving, says a study, as can hearing negative or positive words.

Music can also impact driving, says another study. It indicates that (as lawmakers warned back in the 1930s) listening to certain kinds of music—for example, our favorite amped-up songs as opposed to soft jazz—greatly increases our chances of speeding, recklessly changing lanes, and missing stop signals.

Any extreme emotion can cause tunnel vision. If you’re feeling angry, sad or stressed, don’t get behind the wheel. If you’re already driving, find a safe place to pull over and park until you feel better.

The Power Of The Passenger
If having hands-free phone conversations or listening to music can impede our driving ability, it follows that interacting with car passengers while we’re driving poses similar risks. According to NHTSA, a driver conversing with passengers is an all-too-common crash-related distraction. But screaming children and wandering pets can also take our attention away from where it needs to be: on the road. (Watch this video on how to minimize distractions.)

The danger is especially prevalent for teen drivers, says NHTSA. In comparison to when they’re driving with an adult, teens are five times more likely to have loud conversations and nine times more likely to participate in horseplay when they’re driving with other teens. Plus, they’re more than twice as likely to engage in unsafe driving practices (like speeding and running red lights) when another teenager is in the car—and three times as likely when two or more teen passengers are present. In just 1 percent of the cases, this risky behavior stems from passengers egging on the driver; most often, the mere presence of passengers caused the inattention. According to Vogel of the NSC, the result is a whopping 44 percent increase in fatal accidents among teenagers who drive with their peers.

Assign seats and roles to your passengers before getting in the car, to minimize potential distractions. Always secure pets in a crate or a backseat restraint.

Taking Action Against Distraction
There may not yet be a household catchphrase for the distracted-driving epidemic, or an all-out nationwide ban on phones in vehicles—but lawmakers have taken notice. As of February 2018, texting while driving is banned in 47 states, as well as Washington, D.C., while 15 states (and D.C.) ban talking on a handheld phone while driving.

In the summer of 2017, the state of Washington pushed distraction law further by enacting the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE) Act, which bans drivers from even holding a phone, including at stop signs or in traffic jams. Also prohibited: applying makeup, fixing your hair, and eating and drinking (though only when those actions are connected to bad driving).

Technology companies have also been stepping up to help drivers keep their senses trained on the road—and away from their devices. Apps can do things like block incoming messages when a car reaches a certain speed; of course, the technology only works when the app is on. In 2016, NHTSA proposed that device manufacturers include a “Driver Mode” to perform this function automatically.

New message! READ NOW

“Hey, I just got into town. What are you up to tonight? Want to grab a bite then go see a movie?” READ NEXT

“If you had been reading this while driving 55 mph, you would have traveled the length of a football field.”


Although distracted driving is uniformly discouraged across the country, cell phone usage laws vary from state to state. Check out the hand-held usage laws for each state provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

At the educational level, public safety agencies like NHTSA and the NSC have been leading the charge, with campaigns to increase both legislation about and awareness of distracted driving. At the corporate level, companies have been dialing up the volume on their PSAs. And at the grassroots level, small nonprofit organizations like End Distracted Driving have been working in their local communities to promote a better understanding of the danger, often by leading seminars in schools and workplaces.

Change Starts Now
The NSC’s Vogel feels hopeful about all the efforts to combat this epidemic; and encouragingly, NHTSA reports that distracted-driving fatalities in 2016 dropped slightly (2.2 percent) from the previous year. “Someday we’re going to look back at distracted driving and feel the same way about it as we do now about drunk driving,” Vogel says. “We’re going to wonder how we ever let it happen at all.”

But Vogel also feels that getting to this point will require more effort, starting with taking personal responsibility for our own driving behavior. “There’s a dangerous sort of cultural complacency that’s overtaken us, especially when it comes to using our devices,” she says. “We want to be safe—but we also want to be able to pick up our cell phones whenever they ring.”

“We all need to do our part to address this disconnect,” says Vogel. “Before we take the wheel, we should all make sure we look in the mirror and take personal responsibility for our driving habits. We do not want others to be distracted. We should make sure we aren’t distracted ourselves.”

Illustrations by Jing ZhangIllustrations by Sarah Gold

    Leave a comment

  1. Mari Su says,

    OK, I am responsable driving. BUT, what happen I see the vehicle behind me is texting? I pullover and let it go in front of me, but not all the time I can pullover.
    The problem is drivers drives to close to the vehicle in front or tailgate, they don’t care if insurance increase or not because they have good salary or they have low insurance, they continue driving affecting the good driver.
    Plus I noticed in the night they driving with the high beam, causing the good driver in front be blind, that is not fair. I remember when I start driving 40 years ago, 2 occasions I forgot to turned off the high beam and a policeman pullme over saying you have to turned off the high beam, the policeman don’t say nothing no more.

  2. Nya says,

    I love the way that they set this up it was really fun even though im 10 years old and i didnt read anything only read the map stuff and played with it

  3. ETTA CLARK says,

    I see it everyday of people texting or scrolling through their phones while driving down the freeway.. it drive me absolutely crazy.. I wish there was a devise that would disable the phone while in driving mode..

  4. Miriam Rodriguez says,

    Honestly, I pray before driving make sure I don’t hit anybody O kill myself or anybody, And just focus in my driving

  5. ramon Reyes says,

    In order for you to be a good driver you have to be focus, never take the eyes off the road! using blinkers is very important. keeping distance on the car in front you. some people don’t know how to use the rightway, they run thru the stop sighn. using the phone is not a good idea. most accident happen when drivers are using the phone and when they don’t pay attention on their surounding.

  6. Jorge Porta says,

    Very educational and thought-provoking. The statistics really added power to the presentation. I’ll make some changes in my driving habits.

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