Distracted driving, as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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 2018. The difference was greatest in 2007 at 8% for females versus 5% for males, and progressively narrowed to reach its smallest point in 2018 at 3.6% versus 2.9% (see chart below), respectively. Driver hand-held cell phone use also varied by age group and was consistently highest among 16- to 24-year-old drivers and lowest among drivers 70 and older (see chart below).
- Data Table
- Data Table
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 has increased more than 1,300% since 2005, while usage among middle-aged drivers ages 25 to 69 has increased 1,900%. However, the percentage of young drivers observed manipulating hand-held devices has decreased from 4.9% in 2015 to 4.2% in 2018. Similarly the percentage of middle-aged drivers observed manipulating hand-held devices has decreased from 2.1% in 2015 to 2.0% in 2018.
- Data Table
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 October 2019, 20 states and the District of Columbia ban hand-held devices for all drivers, while 48 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving.
The only state laws completely banning the use of cell phones while driving are limited to either young drivers or bus drivers. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia restrict young or novice drivers from using cell phones. The interactive maps provide details of the hand-held cell phone bans, texting bans, and young drivers’ all-cell phone bans by state.
- Data Table
NHTSA reports that there are limitations regarding distracted driving crash data. Distracted driving data is based on police crash reports from information collected after the crash.
Police crash reports vary across jurisdictions. Many variables on the police accident report are nearly universal, but distraction is not one of those variables. Some police crash reports identify distraction as a distinct reporting field, while others do not have such a field and identification of distraction is based upon the narrative portion of the report. An NSC report found that no state fully captures the data required by government and traffic safety organizations to understand the real causes of crashes and effectively address the problems. Twenty-six states lack fields to capture texting and 32 states lack fields to capture hands-free cell phone use.
The variation in reporting forms contributes to variation in the reported number of distraction-affected crashes. Any national or state count of distraction-affected crashes should be interpreted with this limitation in mind due to potential under-reporting in some states and possible over-reporting in others.