Distracted driving

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.

The National Safety Council (NSC) analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data finds that 2,841 people died in distraction-affected crashes in 2018. This is a decrease of 12% from 3,242 deaths in 2017, and the third consecutive yearly decrease. See Data Details to understand the data limitations and potential underestimation of the number of 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: NSC analysis of NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data.


How Common is Driver Cell Phone Use?

Over the last seven 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 3.2% in 2018. The slight increase from the 2017 record low of 2.9% was not statistically significant. 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. NHTSA also estimates that 9.7% of drivers were using some type of phone, either handheld or hands-free, at typical daylight moment in 2018. Because of changes to the estimate method, this overall estimate is not comparable to previous years.

The percent of drivers manipulating hand-held electronic devices has increased 1,500%, from 0.2% in 2005 to 3.2% in 2018, but has decreased from the record high of 4.3% in 2014. Among other activities, this observation includes text messaging as well as manipulating devices such as MP3 players. Drivers observed with visible headsets remains low at 2.1% in 2018.

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Source: NHTSA. (2013 – 2019). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2011 through 2018: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.

This graph shows that the total number of fatal distraction-affected crashes decreased for the third consecutive year in 2018 to 2,628 from a high of 3,242 fatal crashes 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 in 2018 was 13.3% compared to 13.9% in 2017.

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Source: NSC analysis of NHTSA FARS data and NHTSA (2017 – 2018). Distracted Driving 2015 and 2016: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.

Distraction-affected injury and property damage-only crashes from 2011 through 2018 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. Although not comparable because of estimate procedure changes, in 2016 distracted-affected injury crashes in 2018 totaled 276,000.

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 in 2018 totaled 659,000.

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Source: NSC analysis of NHTSA Crash Report Sampling System (CRSS) data and NHTSA (2017 – 2018). Distracted Driving 2015 and 2016: 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 and 2017 estimates are not comparable to 2015 and earlier year estimates.

See data details