What’s Distracted Driving? (And Why You Should Care)

If you take your attention off the road (or your hands off the wheel) while you’re driving, you’re contributing to the serious problem of distracted driving.
Written by Jasmine Kanter
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
Distracted driving happens when you remove your attention from the road in one or more ways: visually, aurally, manually, or mentally. The high costs of driving distracted—in lives, injuries, and fines—make it a priority challenge for every driver.
At the same time that they released their new DriveMode app, the telephone company AT&T released the
startling results of a new survey
: even though 98% of drivers with cell phones said they knew the risks, around three-quarters of them still chose to text and drive. TBH, that’s a little worrying, because distracted driving can have huge consequences. Every year, distracted drivers cost Americans thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and a ton of money in fines—not to mention skyrocketing
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Here’s everything you need to know about distracted driving.
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What is distracted driving?

There are four kinds of distracted driving, all of which involve taking your attention off the road in some way:
  1. If your eyes wander from the road ahead, you’re visually distracted. You could be turning your head to gawk at an accident, focusing on talking passengers, or resting your eyes for just a moment after an all-nighter—regardless of the reason, it seriously compromises your ability to avoid danger when you can’t see it coming. 
  2. If your ability to hear is compromised, you’re aurally distracted. It’s quite common to play music or podcasts while driving, but you should remember that it can interfere with your awareness of your surroundings and other vehicles on the road.
  3. If both your hands aren’t on the wheel, you’re manually distracted. We’re not saying you should never yawn or pick your nose while you’re driving (hey, Jerry doesn’t judge). It’s just that taking your hands off the controls for several tons of steel, complex machinery, and flammable gasoline for too long is a bad idea.
  4. If your mind isn’t focused on your driving, you’re cognitively distracted. Your senses aren’t worth much if your mind isn’t making use of them. Even if your eyes are open, if you aren’t registering what you see (as in cases of
    highway hypnosis
    ), you’re raising your chances of causing an accident.

Why do people drive distracted?

Returning to the earlier survey, the majority (43%) of the drivers who admitted to distracted driving told AT&T that they were worried about staying connected to their families and friends. One-third of the drivers surveyed were simply used to the habit, while a quarter feared missing important work updates.
Modern work culture, in particular, prizes multitasking. In this mindset, the morning commute, a breakfast sandwich, and a quick Facetime with your colleagues might seem like a natural combination. Add the pressures of juggling responsibilities to our families, our friends, and ourselves—plus the relatively recent introduction of the smartphone to humankind—and a seemingly-harmless temptation becomes unshakeable once it gains the force of habit. 
Is it any wonder that so many cell phone users show
signs of separation anxiety
after being disconnected from their devices?

Who drives distracted?

The data shows that young drivers from 15 to 20 years old are
more likely to drive distracted than other age groups
. In a 2019 survey, 39% of high school students admitted to texting or emailing while driving. Furthermore, their grades and their awareness of the dangers of distracted driving played no part in their decision to do so.
Perhaps it’s because young drivers are more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors and to ignore cell phone bans that their demographic is
overrepresented in distracted driving fatalities
. Or maybe it’s a consequence of growing up in a culture that normalizes constant cell phone use. Regardless, parents can lead by example by putting away their phones in the car, as
the children of distracted drivers are two to four times more likely to drive distracted themselves
Key Takeaway If your eyes, ears, and mind aren’t focused on driving (and your hands aren’t on the wheel), you’re probably driving distracted.
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What are the penalties for driving distracted?

In 2019, the United States saw 3,142 deaths and 424,000 injuries attributed to distracted driving
. Keep in mind that these dangers aren’t reserved for the offending driver—it’s most often other motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and passengers who pay the price. Every day, nine people are killed in a car accident that involves a distracted driver.
End Distracted Driving (EndDD)
, an organization dedicated to fighting against driver distraction, has gathered a sobering collection of facts. In general, distracted driving goes unreported, with some estimates putting it at the root of up to 27% of all car accidents. People who talk on a cell phone while driving are just as impaired as someone with a Blood Alcohol Content level of 0.08% (considered a
in most states). Finally, taking 5 seconds to text while traveling at 55 mph is the same as driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.
Understandably, many state governments consider distracted driving to be a serious violation, particularly when a cell phone is involved. Here are some of the penalties you can expect if you’re caught texting at the wheel:
Maximum texting and driving fines for first-time offenders
Montana, Texas
Alabama, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina
$50 or less
Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wyoming
$51 to $100
Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin
$101 to $500
Alaska, Hawaii, Utah
More than $500
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Although there’s no statewide law, many cities in
have instituted handheld device bans and fines. By contrast, texting and driving is a misdemeanor in
and can cost up to $10,000 and one year in prison. Most bans are considered a primary offense—an act that by itself is grounds for a police officer to ask you to pull over.
Key Takeaway Distracted driving causes thousands of fatalities and hundreds of thousands of accidents every year, which is why you’ll see texting and driving laws (and fines) in place across the country.
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How to avoid distractions on the road

It can be tough to break the habit of using your phone or eating while you’re on the road. But with awareness, intentional driving, and a little practice, you can start driving distraction-free. Here are a few helpful tech tools and tips to help you stay safe!

Distracted drivers and technology

As you’ve probably guessed by now,
cell phones are a major culprit in distracted driving
. The problem has received a lot of press, pressuring car manufacturers to develop safer driving experiences. With smart infotainment consoles, buyers can now request driving directions or music with a spoken phrase—just be mindful of getting into an argument with Siri over whether you said “Put on Taylor Swift” or “McDonald’s near me.”
Phone companies are also taking notice. Like AT&T’s DriveMode app, Apple now offers a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” option to mute incoming calls and notifications. Meanwhile, Android users should check out their settings for the Driving Monitor feature.

Safety tips

However far technology advances, the best defense against distracted driving remains driver awareness and preparation. Try at least one of these steps today and, little by little, you can build safer driving habits for your family and everyone else on the road:
  • Plan your route with
    traffic-monitoring apps
    so you know how long your trip will take, then add a little extra time to be safe
  • Plan backward from the time you’d like to arrive to include tasks like eating, napping, packing, or applying makeup
  • Put everything in its place inside your car—children, luggage, and pets should be secured, while mirrors and climate controls can be adjusted in the driveway
  • Mute your smartphone (or activate driving mode) and make it part of your routine before you start the car
  • Take some time to enjoy your meal inside the restaurant or in the parking lot if you eat along the way
  • Create a special driving playlist with music or podcasts that aren’t super-engrossing or emotionally-distressing
  • Pull over before making or receiving any important calls or texts
  • Ask any talking passengers to give you space to concentrate when you need it
  • Ask other drivers not to talk or text while driving
  • Take the NHTSA pledge
    to drive distraction-free
It’s difficult to prioritize when you’re stressed or tired, so take a moment now to think about what matters to you. If you’re late, you can apologize. If you miss an email, it’ll still be waiting for you when you arrive. It might not feel like it, but there are very few things in life that can’t wait half an hour. Following these tips could mean the difference between a good day and a bad day for you—or someone else.

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Distracted driving is when you take your eyes, ears, hands, or attention off the road for any length of time.
Yes. Distracted driving claims hundreds of thousands of casualties per year. Drivers who are distracted are around 5.3 times more likely to be involved in an accident.
Cell phones are the most common cause of distracted driving, especially in the hands of young drivers.
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