More than 90% of car crashes involve human error*. Being an attentive and alert driver can help prevent crashes that lead to unintentional injury and death. With the rapid adoption of smartphones in the United States, distracted driving has become a hot topic in traffic safety. 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.
In 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 3,160 people died in distraction-affected crashes. This is a decrease of 9% from 3,490 deaths in 2016. See Data Details to understand the data limitations and potential underestimation of the number distracted-affected crashes.
Sources: Singh, S. (2018, March). Critical reasons for crashes investigated in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey. (Traffic Safety Facts Crash•Stats. Report No. DOT HS 812 506). Washington, DC: NHTSA.
Source: NHTSA. (2019). Distracted Driving in Fatal Crashes, 2017: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.
How Common is Driver Cell Phone Use?
Over the last five years, the prevalence of drivers using hand-held or hands-free cell phones at any given daylight moment has decreased from 9% of drivers in 2012 to 5.3% in 2017. This figure from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey conducted by NHTSA is the only national estimate of driver cell phone use based on driver observations. The graph shows the percentage of drivers likely to be on either hand-held or hands-free cell phones decreased from 11% in 2007 and 2008 to 9% starting in 2009 and continuing through 2012 before steadily declining to 5.3% in 2017.
The corresponding hand-held cell phone use estimate also has dropped from 5.2% of drivers in 2012 to 2.9% of drivers in 2017. The percent of drivers manipulating hand-held electronic devices has increased 900%, from 0.2% in 2005 to 2.0% in 2016, however, the manipulation of hand-held devices has now decreased for two consecutive years. Among other activities, this observation includes text messaging as well as manipulating devices such as MP3 players.
- Data Table
Source: NHTSA. (2013 – 2019). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2011 through 2017: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.
This graph shows that the total number of fatal distraction-affected crashes per year was consistent over the seven-year period from 2011 thru 2017, averaging 3,059 fatal crashes. The low was 2,923 in 2013 and the high was 3,242 in 2015. A fatal crash is one that results in one or more fatalities. The percent of fatal distraction-affected crashes involving cell phone use increased from 12% at the beginning of the period to 14% at the end.
- Data Table
Source: NHTSA. (2017 – 2019). Distracted Driving 2015 and 2017: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.
A similar pattern was observed for distraction-affected injury and property damage-only crashes from 2012 thru 2015 as 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. Although not comparable because of estimate procedure changes, in 2016 distracted-affected injury crashes totaled 319,000.
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. Although not comparable because of estimate procedure changes, in 2016 distracted-affected property damage-only crashes totaled 681,000.
- Data Table
Source: NHTSA. (2017 – 2018). Distracted Driving 2015 and 2016: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.
* The Crash Reporting Sampling System (CRSS) replaced the NASS GES in 2016 and has a different sample design. Thus, the 2016 estimates are not comparable to 2015 and earlier year estimates.