Teens and Distracted Driving

Teens and Distracted Driving
There is an appropriate focus on the risk of driving when impaired by alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs but another impairment, distracted driving, is also a menace to safe driving that is increasing in importance.  One estimate is that driving while texting is about 4 times more likely to result in an accident than drinking while driving, and the risk of injury requiring a hospital visit is 3–5 times greater than for other types of accidents.

What is distracted driving?

Driving distractions are categorized into three distinct groups: 

  • Visual, distractions involve taking one's eyes off the road, such as looking at a GPS system or a text message on your cell phone.

  • Manual, distractions involve taking one or both hands off the wheel, like searching for something in the car or when eating or drinking.

  • Cognitive, distractions occur when you are mentally focused on something other than driving. 

Some distractions, like using a cell phone or eating while driving combine two or all three of these groups.

How Prevalent Is Distracted Driving
Potentially distracting behaviors include cellphone use, texting, eating or drinking, to which in one study 86% of drivers admitted to; carrying and talking to passengers; transporting pets; smoking, rubbernecking; combing or styling hair; and applying makeup, to which 14% of girls admitted. A study found that coffee, hot soup, tacos, chili, hamburgers, and barbecued foods were the most dangerous to try and eat while driving.  A 2016 survey found that nearly 50% of drivers admitted to reading or sending a text message, checking their phone for directions, or using social media while driving.  

Calling on a phone is estimated to increase the risk of experienced drivers crashing or nearly crashing by a factor of 2.5.  A study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that talking to a passenger was as distracting as talking on a call on a hands-free smartphone.  Other studies have found that, having one or more children in the car was 12 times more distracting than calling while driving.1  According to an AAA study, 80% of respondents with dogs had driven with them, and 31% of these admitted to being distracted by them.

Surveys suggest that younger drivers and males have higher rates of distracted behavior.  For example, younger drivers are overwhelmingly more likely than older drivers to text message and talk on cell phones while driving.2 3

How risky is distracted driving?
The rate of incidents associated with distracted driving is high and growing. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in the U.S. from motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015. The report states that 80% of accidents and 16% of highway deaths are the results of distracted drivers. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 1.6 million (25%) of crashes annually are due to calling on a smartphone, and another 1 million (18%) are caused by texting while driving.

Every year there are about 20,000 deaths among children age 1 to 19 in the U.S. with the greatest single cause being motor vehicle crashes that account for 20% of such deaths. Incidents related to distracting driving have been particularly common among young drivers.  In 2016, 2,433 teens in the United States ages 16–19 were killed and 292,742 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes.1 That means that six teens ages 16–19 died every day due to motor vehicle crashes and a hundred times as many were injured.

According to a study by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 15% of reported crashes were due to a teen driver distracted by talking with a passenger. Another 12% of crashes occurred because a teen was either talking, texting or searching for information on a cellphone while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that distracted driving accounts for 25% of all crashes involving teenage drivers.

Curbing Distracted Driving
The three main approaches to attenuating the epidemic of distracted driving are through laws, education and use of technology.

Laws: Requirements for increased driver education and Graduated Driver Licensing programs (GLD) through extended learners permit periods and other regulations have reduced teen fatality rates by 20% to 25% after their enactment.  They improve driving skills through more supervised driving and perhaps most important, they decrease distraction by limiting the times newly licensed drivers can be on the road and how many (if any) teen passengers they can carry.

State Legislation on cell phone use (as of April 2018)

  • Hand-held Cell Phone Use: 16 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. All are primary enforcement laws—an officer may cite a driver for using a hand-held cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place.
  • All Cell Phone Use: No state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, but 38 states and D.C. ban all cell phone use by novice drivers, and 20 states and D.C. prohibit it for school bus drivers.
  • Text Messaging: Washington was the first state to pass a texting ban in 2007. Currently, 47 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers. All but 4 have primary enforcement. Of the 3 states without an all driver texting ban, 2 prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.

Drivers are not categorically prohibited from using phones while driving. For example, talking and using earphones (only allowed in one ear in some states) and texting with a hands-free device remain legal.  Currently U.S. laws are not strictly enforced and have not led to consistent improvement in driver compliance––possibly because punishments are usually not severe.  Offenses are considered traffic violations punishable by monetary fines, although some states impose stricter penalties. For example, in Alaska, the penalty for texting while driving can be up to a $10,000 fine and one year in prison depending on the facts and circumstances of the case.

Education: The U.S.Department of Transportation (DOT) and NHTSA has conducted a series of initiatives and campaigns, advertisement, commercials advocate safe driving habits via vivid scenarios, attempting to make the consequences of distraction more tangible.5
The cellular network providers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and several hundred other organizations have teamed up to create the "It Can Wait" campaign, to inform young drivers that no phone call or text message is worth a life.

Technology: Automakers are increasing distractions through complicated touch screen controls that require taking eyes off of the road and more sophisticated entertainment systems for passengers.  At the same time, they are implementing gesture- and voice-based interfaces and heads-up displays to simplify controlling the vehicle and provide information without the driver looking away from the road. Smartphone applications may disable communication, or limit access to applications or programs when the device is in motion.

The one factor every distracted driving accident has in common is drivers paying attention to something other than driving. 


1 Children more distracting than mobile phones, Monash University". Monash.edu. 2013-10-03. Retrieved 2013-12-10.

2  Gliklich E, Guo R, Bergmark RW.Texting while driving: A study of 1211 U.S. adults with the Distracted Driving Survey. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2016;4: 486–489. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.09.003. ISSN2211-3355.PMC 5030365 PMID 27656355.
3 Erie Insurance distracted driving survey finds drivers doing all sorts of dangerous things behind the wheel—from PDA to taking selfies to changing clothes - The Harris Poll. theharrispoll.com.
4 Governors Highway Safety Association, http://www.ghsa.org/state-laws/issues/Distracted-Driving
5 Public Awareness Campaigns. U.S. Department of Transportation.

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