Distracted Driving

Distracted driving, as defined by NHTSA, is a specific type of inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention away from the driving task to focus on another activity. These distractions can be from electronic sources (such as cell phones or navigation devices) or more conventional distractions (such as interacting with passengers and eating). Distracting tasks can affect drivers in different ways and can be categorized into the following types:

  • Visual distraction: Tasks that require the driver to look away from the roadway to visually obtain information
  • Manual distraction: Tasks that require the driver to take a hand off the steering wheel and manipulate a device
  • Cognitive distraction: The mental workload associated with a task that involves thinking about something other than driving

A distraction-affected crash is any crash in which a driver was identified as distracted at the time of the crash.


Hand-held Cell Phone Use by Gender and Age

Hand-held cell phone use was consistently higher among female drivers than male drivers from 2005 to 2022. The difference was greatest in 2007 at 8% for females versus 5% for males, and progressively narrowed to reach its smallest point in 2019 at 3.0% versus 2.8% (see chart below), respectively. The gap has narrowed again in 2022, with 2.3% of female drivers observed using a hand-held phone compared to 2.0% of male drivers. Driver hand-held cell phone use also varied by age group and is generally highest among 16- to 24-year-old drivers and lowest among drivers 70 and older. Prior to 2021, hand-held cell phone usage was decreasing among all age groups, particularly among the younger 16- to 24-year-old users (see chart below). However, hand-held usage among drivers 16 to 24 increased 42% in 2021. However, this appears to be a one-year spike. Currently, in 2022, drivers aged 16 to 24 have the highest observed use of hand-held cell phones, 2.4% compared to 2.1% among drivers ages 25 to 69.

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Source: NHTSA. (2015 – 2023). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2014 thru 2022: >Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.

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Source: NHTSA. (2015 – 2024). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2014 thru 2022: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.

In 2021, data collected for drivers visibly manipulating handheld devices while traveling included manipulating infotainment systems. This was an errant departure from the usual data collection protocol. For 2022, the data collection procedure reverted to excluding manipulating infotainment systems. Estimates for 2021 and 2022 are not comparable to previous years.

Age group differences also exist among drivers visibly manipulating hand-held devices while driving, with younger and middle-aged drivers mainly responsible for the increase. The percent of younger drivers observed to be manipulating hand-held devices in 2022 was 6.5% compared to 3.0% among drivers aged 16 to 24 and 0.8% among drivers age 70 and older.

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Source: NHTSA. (2015 – 2022). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2014 thru 2022: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.

State Laws

Although research findings indicate that there is little to no safety advantage of hands-free over hand-held cell phone use, states that have implemented bans impacting all drivers have focused on hand-held bans. As of July 2023, 34 states and the District of Columbia ban hand-held devices for all drivers, while 49 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving.

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How to Use Injury Facts® Charts and Tables

Data Limitations

NHTSA reports that there are limitations regarding distracted driving crash data. Distracted driving data are based on police crash reports from information collected after the crash.

  1. Self-reported data elements, such as admitting to texting while driving, are always subject to bias (underreporting or false reporting). In some cases, the only source of distraction information for an investigating police officer may be the surviving driver’s account of the crash and the likelihood that the driver might admit to a negative behavior such as texting while driving might be small.
  2. If a driver fatality occurs in the crash, law enforcement must rely on the crash investigation to report on whether driver distraction was involved. Law enforcement may not have information to indicate distraction. These investigations may rely on witness account and oftentimes these accounts may not be available either.
  3. Technologies are changing at a rapid speed, and it is difficult to update police crash reports to accommodate these changes. Without broad-sweeping changes to PCRs to incorporate new technologies and features of technologies, it is difficult to capture the data that involves driver interaction with these devices.

The following is a challenge in quantifying external distractions.

  1. In the reporting of distraction-affected traffic crashes, oftentimes an external distraction is identified as a distinct type of distraction. Some scenarios captured under external distractions might be related to the task of driving (e.g., looking at a street sign). However, the crash reports may not differentiate these driving-related tasks from other external distractions (looking at a previous crash or billboard). Currently, the category of external distractions is included in the counts of distraction-affected traffic crashes.