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What is distracted driving?

man texting while driving

"Distracted driving" is a term used to describe anything that takes your attention away from the road as you are driving to a destination. This includes a range of activities, from using your cell phone while driving to eating lunch behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.

Distractions are dangerous for the driver, passengers and all other people on the road, whether they are also driving, cycling or otherwise near a roadway. 

What counts as distracted driving?

Although keeping your eyes on the road is often thought of as a primary safety measure for driving, your hands and mind can also stray and create dangerous situations.

That being said, it’s important to note that there are three types of driving distractions: visual, manual and cognitive.

  • Visual distractions take your eyes away from the road.

  • Manual distractions cause you to take your hands off the wheel.

  • Cognitive distractions take your mind off the task of driving.

Distractions can be visual, manual, cognitive or a combination of the three. Some examples of distracted driving include:

  • Texting or talking on the phone (including hands-free or Bluetooth settings).

  • Having conversations with other passengers in the car.

  • Tending to children or pets in the car.

  • Eating or drinking.

  • Turning the dial on the radio.

  • Making adjustments to or following directions on a navigation system.

  • Watching an event outside the vehicle, such as a car wreck.

  • Smoking or vaping.

  • Reading.

  • Feeling sleepy.

  • Applying makeup, shaving or performing other types of grooming.

These are not the only distractions out there, so it’s important to be mindful of anything else that could take your attention away from the road.

Dangers of distracted driving

Distracted driving is dangerous for both the driver and others on the road. This includes drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and everyone in between. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 3,142 people were killed as a result of distracted driving in 2019 — a number that accounted for about 8.7% of all fatalities that took place in 2019. This is just one significant statistic that has been reported.

Distracted driving statistics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that injuries and fatalities were higher in 2019 than they were the year prior. Some other notable statistics include:

  • About 8 people are killed in an accident that includes a distracted driver every day.

  • In 2018, 1 out of every 5 people who died in an accident involving a distracted driver was not in a vehicle at the time. Instead, they were walking, cycling or outside a car for another reason.

  • Over 2,800 people died in car accidents involving distracted drivers, and about 400,000 were injured in 2018. In 2019, the amount of fatalities was even higher.

  • About 3,000 people die in car accidents that include a distracted driver every year.

  • Young drivers (specifically teens) are more likely to be distracted than older drivers.

  • More than 26,000 people died in crashes caused by a distracted driver from 2012 to 2019.

  • You are four times more likely to get in an accident if you use a phone while driving.

Consequences of distracted driving

There are both legal consequences and ethical issues when it comes to distracted driving.

Legal implications for distracted driving

While laws against distracted driving may vary from state to state, differing legal consequences don’t make the practice any less dangerous. 

Texting while driving is illegal in 48 states and the District of Columbia, excluding only Missouri and Montana. 

Many states also limit the number of passengers young drivers are allowed to have for a specific period of time after receiving their license, which helps drivers gain more experience before adjusting to what could be potential distractions in the car. This is part of a system called Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL).

GDL has three stages, which are all designed to support a new driver’s safety for the short and long term. The stages include:

  1. A learners permit, which requires passing written and practical driving exams and allows a student to drive with a licensed adult’s supervision before receiving their license.

  2. An intermediate/provisional license, which allows a new teen driver to drive without adult supervision, but with restrictions such as driving with a limited number of other teen passengers and limits on driving at night.

  3. An unrestricted license, which lifts restrictions after a given period of time.

Several state highways also have rumble strips that line the shoulders (the sides of the road) and alert drivers who drift off the road due to distractions and drowsiness.

Ethical considerations

Although there are legal practices in place for distracted driving, it is up to the driver to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them.

Not only can distracted driving result in fines and penalties, it is also an ethical issue. When you become distracted as a driver, you are putting both yourself and others in danger, regardless of the type or cause of the interruption.

SEE RELATED: Driving tips for safety and visibility on the road

How to prevent distracted driving

Avoiding distractions can be difficult, but it’s critical when you’re behind the wheel. Prevention starts with the driver, who ultimately has control of the car. However, passengers need to speak up when the driver is not paying attention.

Here are some tips to prevent distracted driving:

  • Put your phone away or use a mobile app to disable phone use while your car is moving.

  • Refrain from using electronic devices and other objects.

  • Avoid eating and drinking while you drive.

  • If you are using a navigation device, review the directions before beginning your journey.

  • Avoid all types of multitasking.

  • Speak up if you are a passenger and the driver of the car you’re in is distracted.

  • If your teen is a new driver, speak with them about the dangers of distracted driving and remember to set a good example for them in the car. Also consider putting your expectations in writing with a parent-teen driving agreement.

Keep your eyes healthy for the road

Along with staying alert behind the wheel, clear vision is critical for safe driving. If you notice street signs or landmarks starting to appear blurry when you drive, or if you struggle to see while you drive at night, schedule an appointment with your eye doctor for an eye exam as soon as possible.

Be sure to schedule routine annual eye exams as well, as some eye problems that affect driving may not be obvious to you but may be identified by a doctor during an exam.

READ NEXT: Night Driving Glasses: Help or Hoax? 

Overview of motor vehicle crashes in 2019. U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. December 2020.

Distracted driving. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Accessed July 2021.

Distracted driving. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 2021.

Road traffic injuries. World Health Organization. June 2021.

Distracted driving. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. May 2021.

Teenagers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. May 2021.

Graduated driver licensing system planning guide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 2016.

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