Distracted Driving: Unlawful and Deadly


Defined as any activity that draws a driver’s attention away from safely steering a vehicle, distracted driving is deadly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted driving caused more than 26,000 deaths between 2012 and 2019.

One of the most widely known and common forms of distracted driving is texting—using a phone to read, type, or send a text message. Typing and reading a text is known to divert a motorist’s attention away from the road for at least 5 seconds; NHTSA affirms, at 55 mph, that is like driving the length of an entire football field with one’s eyes closed.

Distractions come in many forms; some forms may come as a surprise to motorists as they are simple, ordinary practices and movements. They include—

  • Talking on the phone or talking with other passengers within the vehicle;
  • Attempting to communicate with persons outside the vehicle;
  • Operating a vehicle’s radio, navigation system, and climate controls;
  • Listening to audio (for example, music, talk radio, and audiobooks);
  • Attending to kids, passengers, and pets;
  • Retrieving items from the floor or other areas of the vehicle;
  • Holding and eating or drinking food and beverages;
  • Grooming (for example, applying make-up, combing hair, and shaving);
  • Daydreaming;
  • Reading maps, navigation screens, road signs, and billboards; and
  • Gazing at scenery and accident scenes.

Unfortunately, this is not an exhaustive list as additional driving distractions exist. If a driver is not giving all his attention to driving, then he is driving distracted. When drivers drive distracted, their chances of being seriously injured or involved in a fatal accident increase.

Every driving distraction can be classified into one of the four types of driving distractions: (1) visual distractions (looking at something other than the road), (2) manual distractions (touching something other than the steering wheel), (3) cognitive distractions (thinking about something other than driving), and (4) auditory distractions (paying attention to sound unrelated to driving). A single driving distraction, such as texting, can fit into one or more of these categories. For example, sending a text while driving involves touching a phone (a manual distraction), looking at the phone’s screen or keyboard to type a message (a visual distraction), and thinking about what the message should convey (a cognitive distraction).

Distractions are not only associated with automobiles, but they can also lead to severe injuries or deaths across other modes of transportation. Such terminologies as distracted boating, distracted biking, and distracted walking may not be as widely familiar, but they—and the associated risky behaviors—exist.

Across the country, the distractions most coupled with cell phones have yielded the implementation of rules, regulations, and laws. For example, within the aviation industry, there is the sterile cockpit (or flight deck) rule. This rule states that “no certificate holder shall require, nor may any flight crewmember perform, any duties during a critical phase of flight except those duties required for the safe operation of the aircraft.” Similarly, the United States Coast Guard outlines when vessel operators and crew members serving specific functions can and cannot use cell phones. In Honolulu, HI, distracted walking—traveling on foot while using a phone or electronic device—is illegal while crossing the street (with a few exceptions). In Georgia, school bus drivers are prohibited from using a cell phone while carrying out their most critical duties (loading and unloading passengers) or when the school bus is in motion. It is illegal for bicyclists in Chicago, IL, to talk and text on cell phones while cycling. Additionally, in 2010, the Federal Railroad Administration prohibited use of cell phones and electronic devices by rail operators while on duty.

Each April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, during which organizations collectively raise awareness about the dangers of driving distracted. During this time, motorists are exposed to safe traveling tips such as remain sober and drug-free; incorporate time in your trips for food breaks, rest breaks, phone calls, and other activi ties; be aware of your surroundings and what others (inside and outside your vehicle) are doing; and obey traffic laws. These yearly reminders strive to influence the daily behaviors of motorists to reduce all forms of distracted driving and eliminate the preventable injuries and deaths that may result.