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The dangers of distracted driving

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

Mastering safe behind-the-wheel skills is one of the most important aspects of driver training courses. But despite what your instructor taught you, accidents aren’t the only thing you need to worry about on the road. Distracted driving is becoming a serious problem in the United States, and the data to back it up is alarming. Here’s what you need to know about distracted driving, including ways that you can become a more alert driver.

What is distracted driving

The legal definition of distracted driving is “engaging in an activity that takes your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road.” Ultimately, anything that takes your attention off driving, even for a split second, would be considered distracted driving. 

According to financial and insurance expert, Laura Adams,

“Drivers can be distracted by a variety of bad behaviors. Some have existed since the automobile, such as driving while drunk, eating, smoking, putting on makeup, or talking excessively to passengers.”

However, arguably the biggest source of distracted driving is—you guessed it—cellphones.

“One of the deadliest driving distractions is one of the newest: using a smartphone. It takes eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, and attention off of your surroundings. Shifting your focus off the road, even for a few seconds, to respond to a text or social media alert is one of the most significant hazards facing drivers,” says Adams. 

Chances are, you’ve engaged in distracted driving behaviors more than once in your lifetime. For instance, you might think that sipping your coffee during your morning commute is harmless. But in reality, you’re probably more focused on not spilling it than you are on the road in front of you.

It’s important to note that distracted driving is not the same thing as reckless driving. When someone is driving recklessly, or driving under the influence, they are putting other drivers in harm’s way by performing unsafe maneuvers — flying through a red light or cutting off another driver, for example. The consequences for reckless driving are more severe than distracted driving because there is a greater risk of a serious crash.

Who drives distracted the most

Data shows that the youngest drivers are the ones who are most likely to drive distracted. According to a 2018 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drivers between 15-19 years old were the most likely to be distracted at the time of a fatal crash. Drivers between 20-39 also had high rates of distracted driving. People aged 40 and older were the least likely to get involved in a fatal accident where distracted driving was a factor.

Worst states for distracted driving

The rate of distracted driving varies by state. That’s partially due to state laws that either allow or prohibit cell phone use while driving. Here are the states with the most and least cases of distracted driving, according to a study conducted by Zendrive.com:

Most cases

  • Vermont
  • Mississippi
  • Louisiana
  • Alabama
  • Arkansas

Least cases

  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Idaho
  • Hawaii
  • Montana

Dangers of distracted driving

Driving distracted is one of the most dangerous things you can do on the road. Something as simple as talking to a passenger in the backseat or reaching for your sunglasses can lead to a serious accident.

In 2018 alone, there were 2,841 fatalities due to distracted driving, according to the NHTSA. Of those people, 1,730 were drivers, 605 were passengers, 400 were pedestrians and 77 were bicyclists. The same year, roughly 400,000 people were injured in distracted driving-related crashes. 

Effects of distracted driving

There are many consequences of distracted driving. Here are a few of the biggest ones:

  • Fines: Distracted driving is illegal in all states. But if you’re using your cellphone in the car and you get pulled over, you’ll receive a fine. Currently, 22 states have laws prohibiting drivers from using a handheld phone in the car, and 48 states have a texting ban while driving.
  • Legal action: If you’re involved in a serious crash due to distracted driving, especially a fatal one, you could face jail time in addition to heavy fines. Smaller accidents usually don’t have legal consequences, unless you’ve been involved in multiple distracted driving accidents.
  • Vehicle damages: Car accidents usually result in vehicle damages. That means filing a claim with your insurance company, getting your car repaired and paying for anything that’s not covered. If you’re in a serious accident, there’s always the chance that your car could get totaled, which would leave you without a vehicle for some time. 
  • Increased insurance rates: One of the biggest effects of distracted driving is how it can impact your car insurance rate. If you get a ticket for distracted driving, or are involved in a distracted driving accident, expect your premium to increase. Those incidents stay on your record for about 3-5 years, so you’ll be paying a higher premium for quite some time.

How to prevent distracted driving

Distracted driving is very common, and most people don’t even realize that they’re doing it until they get pulled over or get into an accident. However, there are easy ways that you can prevent distracted driving.

Put your phone down

Cell phone use is one of the most common causes of distracted driving. Even hands-free options such as voice messaging will temporarily take your attention off the road. Adams suggests, “Try putting your phone in the glove box before you begin driving to avoid the temptation of responding to incoming calls and alerts. Make a promise to yourself that you’ll remain entirely focused on the road so you, and everyone on the road with you, stay safe.”

Don’t eat in the car

This is one that nearly everyone is guilty of—having a snack (or even a full-on meal) behind the wheel can be a huge distraction. If you can, eat before you get in the car or save your snack for when you get to your destination. If you stop for food on the road, eat in the parking lot so you aren’t multitasking while driving.

Limit your passengers

Having a car full of passengers is another common cause of distracted driving. When everyone is talking loudly, asking for a new radio station, and climbing over the seats, it’s easy to lose focus on the road in front of you. If you can, try to limit the number of people you have in your car.

Be an example for your kids

If you’re the parent of a teen who is learning to drive, it’s important to set a good example for attentive driving. If your kid always sees you talking on the phone in the car, it shows them that it’s ok for them to do the same. Here are some ways that parents can prevent their kids from driving distracted:

  • Don’t buy them a car right after getting their driver’s license.
  • Set ground rules for the number of passengers they can drive with and expected behavior within the car.
  • Educate them on your state’s distracted driving laws.
  • Sign them up for a safe driving app.

The takeaway

  • Distracted driving is a serious issue, and it can cause fatal accidents
  • Even harmless activities, like eating or changing the radio, count as distracted driving
  • Distracted driving has a number of consequences, like insurance rate hikes

Everyone is guilty of driving distracted from time to time, but it shouldn’t become a habit. Distracted driving kills thousands of people each year and injures many more. When you get in the car, don’t be tempted to send a quick text or eat your breakfast on the way to work. Unless you’re giving your full attention to the road in front of you, you’re at risk of causing a potentially serious crash.

Elizabeth Rivelli

Elizabeth is an insurance writer for coverage.com, where she covers insurance providers and reviews policies to help consumers find comprehensive and affordable coverage for every area of their life. She has more than three years of writing experience for top online insurance and finance publications.

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