Distracted driving is doing any activity that takes your attention away from driving. This includes using a cell phone to call or text while driving. Distracted driving makes you more likely to get into a crash.
As a result, many states have enacted laws to help stop the practice. You can avoid distracted driving by learning how to stay safe with a cell phone in the car.
Examples of Distracted Driving
To drive safely, the National Safety Council says you should have:
- Your eyes on the road
- Your hands on the wheel
- Your mind on driving
Distracted driving occurs when something gets in the way of you doing all 3 things. Examples include:
- Talking on a cell phone
- Reading or sending text messages
- Eating and drinking
- Grooming (fixing your hair, shaving, or putting on makeup)
- Adjusting a radio or other device that plays music
- Using a navigation system
- Reading (including maps)
The Dangers of Talking on the Phone While Driving
You are 4 times more likely to get into a car crash if you are talking on a cell phone. That is the same risk as driving drunk. Reaching for the phone, dialing it, and talking all take your attention away from driving.
Even hands-free phones are not that safe. When drivers use hands-free phones, they do not see or hear things that can help them avoid a crash. This includes stop signs, red lights, and pedestrians. About 25% of all car crashes involve cell phone use, including hands-free phones.
Talking to other people in the car is less risky than talking on a phone. A passenger can see traffic problems ahead and stop talking. They also provide another set of eyes to spot and point out traffic hazards.
Texting and Driving: Even More Dangerous
Texting while driving is riskier than talking on a phone. Typing on the phone takes more of your attention than other distractions. Even talking into the phone to send a text message (voice-to-text) is not safe.
When you text, your eyes are off the road for an average of 5 seconds. At 55 mph, a car travels half the length of a football field in 5 seconds. A lot can happen in that short amount of time.
Who is at Risk
Distracted driving is a problem among people of all ages. But teens and young adults are at the highest risk. Most teens and young people say they have written, sent, or read texts while driving. Younger inexperienced drivers have the highest number of fatal crashes caused by distracted driving. If you are a parent, teach your child about the dangers of talking and texting while driving.
How to Stop Distracted Driving
Use these tips to steer clear of distractions while driving:
- Do not multitask. Before you turn on your car, finish eating, drinking, and grooming. Program your audio and navigation systems before you start to drive.
- When you get in the driver's seat, turn off your phone and place it out of reach. If you are caught using a phone while driving, you may risk a ticket or fine. Most states have banned texting while driving for people of all ages. Some have also banned the use of handheld phones while driving. Learn about the laws in your state at: www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving.
- Download an app that locks the phone. These apps work by blocking features like texting and calling while the car is moving over a set speed limit. Most are controlled remotely through a website and charge a monthly or yearly fee. You can also buy systems that plug into the car's computer or are placed on the windshield that limit cell phone use while the car is moving.
- Pledge not to use your cell phone while driving. Sign the National Highway Safety Administration's pledge at www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving. It also includes a promise to speak out if the driver in your car is distracted and to encourage friends and family to drive phone free.
Safety - distracted driving
Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Distracted driving. www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving. Updated October 9, 2020. Accessed October 26, 2020.
Johnston BD, Rivara FP. Injury control. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 13.
Klauer SG, Guo F, Simons-Morton BG, Ouimet MC, Lee SE, Dingus TA. Distracted driving and risk of road crashes among novice and experienced drivers. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(1):54-59. PMID: 24382065 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24382065/.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. Distracted driving. www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving. Accessed October 26, 2020.
National Safety Council website. Ending distracted driving is everyone's responsibility. www.nsc.org/road-safety/safety-topics/distracted-driving. Accessed October 26, 2020.
Review Date 8/13/2020
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.