The High Toll of Distracted Driving and Staying Safe on the Road

Last updated: 04-23-2021

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The High Toll of Distracted Driving and Staying Safe on the Road

It only takes a moment of distracted driving to cause a tragic crash. Looking down to read a text is like driving blind. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that sending or reading a text at 55 miles per hour is like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. While many of us believe we are safe drivers, about eight people die in crashes involving a distracted driver every day in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With 3,142 deaths associated with distracted driving in 2019, federal and state leaders are more proactive than ever to convince us to put our phones down and focus on the road. All but two states, Missouri and Montana, have a text messaging ban, and 30 states have a ban on hand-held devices. Distracted driving risks lives. It can also significantly impact your car insurance rates. Your provider is more likely to consider you a riskier driver with a citation. It’s good to understand the high toll of distracted driving and how to stay safe on the road.

Our first thought when we hear distracted driving is texting, which is understandable with 13% of all fatal distraction-affected crashes linked to cellphone use, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the distracted driving definition includes multiple types of distracted driving. Distracted driving is any activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. Visual: This type of distraction is when drivers take their eyes off the road, including both in-vehicle distraction and out of the vehicle events. For example, looking at your GPS in the car or staring at a roadside crash. Manual: A manual distraction is anytime a driver takes one or both hands off the wheel to do an unrelated task. This scenario includes eating, drinking, reaching for something or grooming yourself behind the wheel. Auditory: While we tend to forget the importance of listening when driving, auditory distractions are equally important and can cause us to miss sirens, warning honks or rumble strips. Auditory distractions include listening to something with earbuds while driving or reacting to a baby crying in the backseat. Cognitive: When you’re driving, you have control of a 4,000-pound vehicle. It’s essential to keep your mind focused, and when it wanders off the road, you are cognitively distracted. Cognitive distractions include daydreaming, talking to passengers or talking on the phone. The reason texting while driving is so concerning is it combines visual, manual and cognitive distractions simultaneously. And, often, we’re trying to do it at the same time as other destructive measures. "Distracted driving has always been an issue," said Janet Ruiz, California representative of the Insurance Information Institute. "It used to be people doing their makeup and eating breakfast behind the wheel. Now people are doing their makeup and eating breakfast AND using their cellphones, so it's a larger concern today."

When you get behind the wheel, multiple elements are competing for your attention. It is important to know what distractions you face to recognize them and work to ignore them. Here are the 10 most common distractions.

Teens and young drivers are at the most significant risk of distracted driving. Among drivers involved in deadly crashes, drivers 15 to 19 years old are most likely to be distracted than drivers of any age. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for American teenagers. Sadly, 9% of deadly teen crashes involved a distracted driver, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Teenagers are most at risk because of their lack of experience behind the wheel, making the slightest distraction more dangerous. “Teens have lots of distractions — cellphones, roughhousing, music — and the drivers themselves are all novice drivers and don't appreciate how difficult it can be to pay attention to the road,” said Russ Martin, manager of state relations at AAA Foundation. “Teen brains are still developing, they have the highest crash risk, and they are just learning to drive. There is no need for them to have additional distractions. With every additional teen passenger in the car, the crash risk dramatically increases, too.”

Both distracted driving and drunk driving are hazardous. Physician and University of Washington scientist Beth Ebel, MD, MPH, says you're 23 times more likely to crash while texting, which is equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.19. That is more than twice the legal limit and is a risk comparable to driving while drunk. While the number of deaths is higher from drunk driving, distracted driving is likely under-reported. Alcohol levels can be tested and confirmed, while distracted driving must be self-reported in most cases.

As cellphones became more commonplace in the early 2000s, states quickly reacted to safety concerns and introduced laws to prevent distracted driving. Distracted driving laws vary by state and in severity. A primary law means you can be pulled over and ticketed for the action. In contrast, secondary enforcement means an officer can only cite you if you violated a primary offense first. 47 states and the District of Columbia have a primary law banning text messaging Two states have a secondary law on texting and driving 24 states ban all cellphone use while driving "We are working on trying to get bans on texting while driving in all 50 states and the District of Columbia," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. The coalition has reservations about secondary enforcement bans. "We don't consider those to be optimal laws," she added. Many states also have unique laws to address specific driving dangers, like distracted or drowsy driving. For example, Maggie’s Law in New Jersey categories sleep-deprived drivers as reckless drivers allowing them to face vehicular homicide charges. Maggie McDonnell was 20 years old when a driver crossed three lanes of traffic and hit her car head-on in 1997.

If the police catch you texting while driving, you will face fines and penalties. Similar to the laws themselves, these fines and penalties vary from state to state. Alabama has one of the cheapest penalties at $25 for a first offense, but in Alaska, you face a year in prison and a $10,000-fine the first time you text and drive. These fines, and possible jail time, increase if you cause crashes. Prosecutors have some discretion when charging drivers for serious injury crashes, including vehicular homicide if someone dies.

Teenagers and new drivers are most at risk for severe crashes and accidents, so many states implement graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs. GDL programs introduce driving while under conditions that minimize risk. These restrictions differ from state to state but usually involve phone use, passengers and nighttime driving. "For teens who are just learning to drive, we support a complete ban on cellphone use of any kind," said Chase. "It is also important to limit the number of teen passengers they can carry. This is the most dangerous time for drivers. They are more prone to risk-taking and need to focus on learning to drive." According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the first graduated driver licensing programs began in 1996, and since then, teenage crash deaths have declined by 57%. GDL programs are available in each state. Check to see if there is a local program in your area. These programs, along with adult role models, can help teen drivers be safer on the road and prevent crashes and accidents, especially around distracted driving.

Technology is creating a new version of distracted driving named “automation complacency.” Automation complacency is when automated vehicles or self-driving cars allow drivers to over-rely on the car to prevent crashes. Because the car can take safety measures like forward-collision warnings, automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warnings, drivers may become dangerously complacent about their responsibilities behind the wheel. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), a 2019 study discovered using “adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance at the same time resulted in a 50% increase” in secondary task engagement. It also found an 80% increase of drivers engaging in visual or manual distractions than drivers who did not use the automated systems. As an NSC white paper concluded, “Technology available today cannot replace an attentive driver. Technology works with us but not without us.”

Like most unsafe driving habits, distracted driving can impact your auto insurance coverage and rates. To what degree depends on state regulations and if you crash into other vehicles. A clean driving record is one of the best ways to reduce your car insurance costs. Crashes and accidents are likely to increase your premiums. "If an insurance carrier can prove you were distracted when the accident happened and you were the cause of the accident, then that's a factor (in determining your premium)," says Justin Klepado, a claims service manager at CSAA Insurance Group. "We'll assess the cost to fix the damage, and that will be considered when renewing your policy."


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