Distracted Driving Is Skyrocketing, Even With New Laws Limiting Phones in Cars

April 10, 2018, 3:32 PM UTC
Elderly man at steering wheel checking messages on smart phone while driving car on road.
Irresponsible elderly man at steering wheel checking messages on smart phone - smartphone - cellphone while driving car on road. (Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)
Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

People are using their phones more while they drive, and for longer periods, despite numerous legislative efforts to curb technology-induced distracted driving.

An estimated 69 million drivers per day, or 60% of all drivers, use their phones at least once while driving, according to startup Zendrive, which conducted the study using anonymized data from its customers. Distracted drivers used their phones an average of 3 minutes and 40 seconds per hour, 10 seconds more than Zendrive found last year.

Auto deaths jumped in 2015 and 2016, the biggest increase in more than five decades, and remained high last year, at over 40,000, according to the National Safety Council. While lower gas prices have encouraged more driving, distracted driving due to cellphones is also considered one of the major causes. That has prompted many states to begin cracking down on phone use while driving with laws outlawing the behavior. Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia have enacted handheld phone bans and 47 states plus D.C. have banned texting while driving, the Governors Highway Safety Association reports.

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By state, Mississippi had the highest rate of distracted driving, with people in cars using their phones for 7.97% of the time they were driving, or almost 5 minutes per hour, Zendrive said. That was up from 6.85% of driving time in 2016. Rhode Island ranked second at 7.74%, up from 5.58%, and Louisiana ranked third at 7.70%, up from 6.38%. Rhode Island’s distracted driving rate rose even thought the state has imposed car phone use limits, a scenario which also played out in most other states with bans including Connecticut, Illinois, New York and Hawaii.

In fact, distracted driving rates rose in every state except Vermont, which saw its rate fall to 6.54% from 7.42% in 2016. State police there made enforcing the ban on the handheld use of phones while driving law a priority last spring.

Oregon had the lowest rate of distraction, at 5.24%, but again that was an increase from the rate of 3.69% a year earlier. Montana was second best at 5.24%, up from 4.11%, and Washington was third, with a rate of 5.44%, up from 3.96% last year. The increase happened even after Washington toughened its laws last year to ban even holding an electronic device in a driver’s hand while stopped in traffic.

Zendrive CEO Jonathan Matus sees a clear connection between rising phone use and the rising rate of deaths on the roads. “The reason is that more young drivers are getting on the road and that smart phones and the apps that run on them are increasingly useful and addictive,” Matus says. “Traffic is not getting any lighter, so people are getting on their phones to Tweet or post on Facebook or send a text, and the results unfortunately are that the fatalities on the road are also increasing.”

It is possible that the Zendrive study overstates the rate of distracted driving among the general populace because the study didn’t use randomly selected participants. Rather, it was derived from the company’s customer data. Zendrive sells a service to monitor and improve driving in commercial car and truck fleets, aimed particularly at on-demand businesses.

The company said it looked at anonymized behavior from 4.5 million drivers covering 7.1 billion miles between December 2017 and February 2018.