The text can wait.
If you’re driving, so can just about anything else that requires an electronic device. Drivers in the U.S. began to become more aware of the dangers of drunk driving in the early 1980s when a California mom founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after the loss of her daughter in a drunk driving accident.
Almost every state launched public awareness campaigns in the decades that followed, and most adults know about the dangers and consequences of drunk driving.
So why do many of these same people think it’s acceptable to drive with their eyes on their cell phones? Or send a quick text with one hand while the other is on the wheel? Or scroll for a podcast while on the highway?
We don’t know why, but we do know that it still happens — and it’s dangerous.
The U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released its Summary of Statistical Findings on Driver Electronic Device Use in 2019. (source)
Let’s take a look at the DOT research and analysis.
The NHTSA studied 3 types of device use while driving:
- Holding a phone to their ear
- Using a headset
- Visibly manipulating a handheld device
1. Holding a phone to the ear
The study revealed that the percentage of drivers who held a phone to their ear decreased from 3.2% in 2018 to 2.9% in 2019… but that still amounts to an average of more than 432,000 drivers holding phones to their ears while driving.
The highest number of people using a handheld phone to their ear were between the ages of 16 and 24, followed closely by those 25-69. People above the age of 70 were least likely to use a phone held to their ear while driving.
2. Using a headset
The percentage of drivers using headsets increased from 0.35% in 2018 to 0.37% in 2019. The percentage was consistent among each studied age group.
A driver is using a headset if they are speaking and wearing a headset with a microphone. This includes having a conversation or using voice-activated dialing with a wireless earpiece (i.e. Bluetooth) or earbud connected by a wire to a phone. This could also include drivers using voice-activated Bluetooth connections to their vehicles, rather than a separate earpiece.
3. Manipulating a handheld device
This category refers to people using a phone held in their hands while driving. This form of distracted driving showed the most dramatic increase from 2.1% in 2018 to 2.9% in 2019. It was the highest in drivers ages 16 to 24, but there was also a significant increase among drivers ages 25-69. The rate remained constant for drivers aged 70 and older.
This can include any electronic device, like a tablet or video game, in addition to phones. It might be texting, using a GPS, manual dialing, or even holding their phones while voice-activated dialing or using speakerphones. It can be any use of a device with the hands and doesn’t always include talking.
Methodology: How does the NHTSA know how many drivers are using cell phones?
Trained data collection experts sampled intersections controlled by stop signs and traffic lights. They observed the behavior of passenger vehicle occupants. Occupants were not interviewed or surveyed because doing so would taint their behavior and could cause false results.
The observers would collect data on the driver, front-seat passenger, and up to 2 passengers in the rear seats. The observations were then analyzed through a complex system of “statistical data editing, imputation of unknown values, and complex estimation procedures.”
Changes in cell phone use while driving
In a 2016 study, NHTSA estimated that 33% of drivers who used cell phones were using handheld models, while 67% were using a hands-free device. In 2019, the agency estimated that nearly 6% of all drivers were using hands-free devices, and 8% were using either a handheld or hands-free device while driving.
The contrast is because the 2016 data were based on the number of drivers using either a hand-held or hands-free phone, as opposed to the later percentages of phone use among the full set of drivers observed.
General distracted driving statistics
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 3,000 people die in a distracted driving-related crash each year.
The CDC surveyed drivers of all ages and its findings were mostly consistent with the NHTSA report. Drivers ages 15-19 were most likely to be driving distracted, followed by ages 20-29, and then 30-49. Drivers between ages 50-69 were least likely to drive distracted, with a slight uptick in drivers age 70 and older. (source)
In an even deeper dive into the data, the CDC found that among the youngest age group (ages 14-18), older teens were more likely to be emailing or texting while driving. Sixty percent of 18-year-olds in the survey admitted to using their phone for texting or emailing while driving, along with 51% of 17-year-olds, 31% of 16-year-olds, and 16% of 14- and 15-year-olds. (You can obtain a learner’s permit at 14 years old in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota)
State laws for cell phone use while driving
Each of the states/territories listed below has laws that ban texting while driving.
- States with secondary enforcement laws (dark orange): Only 4 states (Florida, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) have secondary enforcement of texting for drivers.
- States with handheld cell phone bans (light orange): Seventeen states (Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia), the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands ban all handheld cell phone use while driving. Arkansas bans handheld devices in school zones and highway construction zones.
- States with no handheld cell phone bans (light gray): Twenty-seven states (Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming) have no handheld cell phone laws on the books.
- States with no laws against texting and driving for all drivers (dark gray): Missouri and Montana.
For additional details about each state’s texting and driving laws, visit Texting and Driving Accidents, Laws and Facts.
Secondary enforcement means a driver can only be ticketed if they are already stopped for a primary violation like running a red light, speeding, or some other traffic infraction. They cannot be stopped and ticketed specifically for cell phone use, alone.
Other types of distracted driving
It’s important to note that there are many forms of distraction that don’t include electronic devices. The CDC defines distraction as:
- Visual - taking your eyes off the road
- Manual - taking your hands off the wheel
- Cognitive - taking your mind off the task of driving
This can include eating, paying attention to a passenger, using a paper map, hair brushing or other makeup or grooming, or any number of other things.
One reason why so much attention is paid to cell phone use is that it usually distracts you in all 3 ways. Still, if you’re driving, it’s crucial that you give the task your full attention, all the time.
Legal liability for a distracted driving accident
Unfortunately, the staggering number of distracted driving crash statistics likely doesn’t even tell the whole story since not every distracted driving accident is reported. Chances are that if you’re in an accident, you don’t know what the other driver was doing at the time of the crash.
It’s possible that you can see another driver texting. But the reality is that if you’re able to get that good a look at them, then you are hopefully able to react quickly enough to avoid a collision. Although some distracted driving lawsuits can hinge on evidence like phone records, often they rely on witness reports.
Proving that another driver was texting could have a tremendous impact on your lawsuit. Here are a few ways your lawyer might seek to prove that the other driver was distracted at the time of a crash:
- The driver admitted they were texting. This is unlikely but possible. Sometimes, in the moment, a person will make what the law calls an “excited utterance,” which is a comment that they say without really thinking about it. So, perhaps the driver is so startled by the accident that they jump out of their car and say, “I’m so sorry! I was just checking a text and I didn’t see you!”
- Witness statement. You might have a witness who can testify to having observed the defendant texting (or otherwise distracted) when the accident happened. Perhaps it was another motorist who saw them, a pedestrian, or even one of their own passengers.
Along those same lines, if the accident happens in an area where there are surveillance cameras (for example, a shopping center parking lot), there might be video footage that could show what the driver was doing at the time of the crash.
- Phone records. Your lawyer could subpoena a driver’s phone records to provide evidence of your claim. The phone company will have a log that includes the exact times that calls and texts were sent or received. An officer at the scene could also confiscate the driver’s phone if they believe it was the cause of the accident, and the phone might provide clues through other apps and functions about what the driver was doing at the time of the crash.
Negligence per se
The negligence per se doctrine says that an act is automatically considered negligent if it violates the law that was designed to prevent that specific outcome. In other words, if a person is involved in an accident while texting and driving in a state where texting and driving is against the law, that person would be liable for the crash.
In a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff usually needs to prove that the defendant was not acting like a reasonable person would in that situation. If it can be proven that the defendant was texting at the time of the crash, the court will presume that the defendant was acting unreasonably or negligently.
How to prevent a distracted driving accident
Certainly, you can’t control anyone else’s behavior behind the wheel but your own.
However, being alert and avoiding distraction can go a long way toward protecting yourself and others from being in an accident.
Here are 10 tips for remaining focused when you drive:
1. Never hold your phone in your hand.
If you need to use it for GPS, mount it to the dashboard so you can see the map without taking your eyes off the road. Turn off other notifications so that you’re not seeing other banners or pop-up notifications on the map while driving.
2. Silence your phone before you get in the car.
Those rings and pings can be distracting, even if you’re not looking at the phone. Especially if you’re the type of person who would be in suspense over who texted you and what they said, the distraction could be in just knowing that there’s a message waiting for you. If you can’t resist looking at your phone when it buzzes, then keep it somewhere you can’t get to it like in the back seat or trunk — that way you’re not tempted to sneak a peek.
There are apps that notify you of all kinds of things... not just texts. But don’t use them while you drive... and that includes recording video.
4. Keep your music at a low volume.
It’s important to hear sounds from outside the car to alert you of danger, so keep your music, podcasts or other listening material at a reasonable volume.
5. Don’t text or call someone if you think they’re driving.
This is how you can protect your friends and others. Don’t put someone else in a potentially dangerous situation.
6. Don’t eat or drink while driving.
Most of us can eat or drink with our eyes closed (but we don’t recommend it). But reaching for a cup in the holder, glancing down because something fell on your clothes, or even taking a big bite of a sandwich can take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel momentarily—which is all it takes.
7. Prepare listening material before you leave.
If you like to listen to music or podcasts from your phone, queue your selections before you start driving so you don’t have to do so while on the road. By the same token, set addresses in the GPS so you don’t have to attempt to use the navigation while in motion.
8. Don’t let your passengers be a distraction.
Any parent knows how distracting children can be. But this also includes pets — keep them in a carrier or buckle them in the back seat if they can sit there calmly.
9. No reaching.
If you drop something on the floor of the car, either leave it there until you’ve reached your destination or pull over to retrieve it.
10. Don’t take videos.
Regardless of what’s happening outside the car, don’t use your phone to take pictures or videos while driving. If you feel like recording traffic is useful, purchase a separate dashcam that can record without driver intervention.