Distracted Driving

Being an attentive and alert driver can help prevent crashes that lead to unintentional injury and death. With the wide use of smartphones in the United States, distracted driving has become an important traffic safety topic. While cell phones and navigation devices often are the culprit when it comes to distracted driving, conventional distractions such as interacting with passengers and eating also contribute to crashes. Distracting tasks can affect drivers in different ways and can be categorized as visual, manual, and cognitive distraction.

The National Safety Council (NSC) analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data finds that 3,142 people died in distraction-affected crashes in 2020. This is an increase of about 1% from 3,119 deaths in 2019. See Data Details to understand the data limitations and potential underestimation of the number of distraction-affected crashes.

Source: NSC analysis of NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data.

How Common is Driver Cell Phone Use?

Over the last nine years, the prevalence of drivers using hand-held cell phones at any given daylight moment has decreased from 5.2% of drivers in 2012 to 2.6% in 2020. These figures are from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) conducted by NHTSA, which is the only national estimate of driver cell phone use based on driver observations.

The percent of drivers manipulating hand-held electronic devices has increased 1,300%, from 0.2% in 2005 to 2.8% in 2020. Among other activities, this observation includes text messaging. Drivers observed with visible headsets remains low at 0.4% in 2020.

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Source: NHTSA. (2013 – 2022). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2011 through 2020: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.

This graph shows that the total number of fatal distraction-affected crashes was relatively stable in 2020 compare to 2019. Distraction-affected fatal crashes have decreased 5.5% since 2011 and now number 2,880. The percent of fatal distraction-affected crashes involving cell phone use in 2020 was 14.0% compared to 15.9% in 2019.

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Source: NSC analysis of NHTSA FARS data.

Distraction-affected injury and property damage-only crashes from 2011 through 2020 are illustrated in the next chart. Distraction-affected injury crashes numbered 260,000 in 2011, increasing over the next three years to 297,000 in 2014 and falling back to 265,000 in 2015. From 2016 to 2020, distraction-affected injury crashes have decreased 27% and now number 215,310.

Likewise, distraction-affected property damage-only crashes totaled 563,000 in 2011, increased to 667,000 in 2014, and then fell back to 617,000 in 2015. The proportion of distraction-affected injury crashes involving cell phone use increased from 5.8% in 2011 to 7.9% in 2015, while the proportion of distraction-affected property damage-only crashes increased from 6.2% to 7.8% over the same period. From 2016 to 2020, distraction-affected property damage-only crashes have decreased 24% and now number 462,106.

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Source: NSC analysis of NHTSA Crash Report Sampling System (CRSS) data and NHTSA (2017 – 2020). Distracted Driving 2015 through 2019: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.

* PDO: Property Damage-Only Crashes.

The CRSS replaced the National Automotive Sampling System (NASS) General Estimates System (GES) in 2016 and has a different sample design. Thus, the 2016–2020 estimates are not comparable to 2015 and earlier year estimates.

See data details