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 2021. 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. 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. Currently drivers aged 16 to 24 have the highest observed use of hand-held cell phones, 3.7% compared to 2.5% among drivers ages 24 to 69.
- Data Table
Source: NHTSA. (2015 – 2022). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2014 thru 2020: >Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.
- Data Table
Source: NHTSA. (2015 – 2022). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2014 thru 2021: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.
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 by 80% since 2012, while usage among middle-aged drivers ages 25 to 69 has increased 143%.
- Data Table
Source: NHTSA. (2015 – 2022). Driver Electronic Device Use in 2014 thru 2020: Traffic Safety Facts Research Notes.
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 April 2023, 24 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.
- Data Table
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.
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.