Deadly Distractions: Safe Driving Requires a Conscious Effort

According to the most recent annual estimates available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, crashes that involved distracted driving killed 3,522 people in 2021, a troubling 12% increase from 3,154 in 2020. About 8% of fatal crashes were linked to some type of driver distraction.1

Legal or not, a distraction is any activity that takes your eyes off the road, your mind off the task, and/or your hands off the steering wheel — if only for a moment. Here are some of the common behaviors that can affect your driving performance and potentially cause a terrible accident.

Talking or Texting

Drivers who are placing or answering calls, or having a conversation, tend to be less focused on potential hazards. Hands-free devices are mandated for drivers in some states, but their use does not always eliminate the distraction. It’s safest to make your calls before you drive. If your phone rings while you are driving, let voicemail pick it up.

Texting is one of the riskiest things people do while driving, because a driver who is reading or sending a message may spend several critical seconds looking away from the road.

Cellphone use was a factor in 12% of all distraction-affected fatalities in 2020 (data for 2021 has not been released).2 This is why talking on a handheld cell phone is now illegal for drivers of all ages in 24 states and the District of Columbia — 36 states have laws that apply specifically to young drivers. Texting is banned for all drivers in 48 states and the District of Columbia.3

Young drivers ages 15 to 20 are most likely to be involved in fatal crashes while using a cell phone, so it’s important to discuss these risks and the rules with any teen drivers in your family.4

Life in the Car

People and animals are sometimes the most difficult distractions to control, but it’s important to remember that simply turning around to talk to passengers could be a deadly mistake.

It’s not easy to explain to young children that driving demands your full attention, but it’s worth a try. Diversions such as books, games, and toys may also help. If a situation involving a child passenger becomes a distraction, it’s best to pull over to a safe spot.

Pets should always be secured in a pet carrier or harness device and never be allowed to roam freely in the car or sit on your lap.

As normal or necessary as it may seem, fiddling with a navigation system, music player, or climate controls can take your attention away from the road long enough to create a hazardous situation. It’s best to delegate these jobs to a passenger or wait until the car is stopped to make adjustments.

Eating or drinking while driving a vehicle presents another set of challenges. When your hands and your mind are otherwise occupied — such as when opening or unwrapping, reaching or leaning, spilling and wiping — the likelihood of an accident increases. For the same reason, grooming tasks such as applying makeup, styling hair, and shaving should never be done while driving, even if you are late for work.

Driving demands a high level of mind and body coordination to control the vehicle and respond appropriately to hazards on the road. Concentrating on the task at hand and reducing distractions may help you and your passengers arrive safely at your destination.