More attentive driving is a small win in tackling traffic deaths

By Chris McCahill 

New data shows distracted driving in the U.S. fell by 4.5% in 2023—its first decline since 2020. This offers some hope in addressing the nation’s awful traffic safety record, and it may have contributed to a 3.5% drop in traffic deaths that year. But distracted driving is just a small piece of the puzzle and should not keep transportation professionals from addressing the root causes of our safety crisis. 

These new data on distracted driving come from Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT), which relies on mobile apps that track phone use, speeding, hard breaking or acceleration, and other risky behaviors. The apps are often used for insurance purposes, so drivers know they are being monitored, but research suggests it is a good representative sample of the general driving population. 

The report notes that the time an average driver spent interacting with their phone while driving dropped from 132 seconds per hour in 2022 to 126 in 2023 (-4.5%) and the time that phones were in motion dropped by 12.5%. The report also notes that stricter regulations seem to have played an important role in lowering phone use—especially in states like Ohio, Alabama, Michigan, and Missouri, where it dropped 2.5 times faster than the national average.  

Does less phone use translate to improved traffic safety? 

Distracted driving is a clear risk to drivers and especially to people walking and biking, but it is not the main contributing factor for serious crashes, especially in the U.S. As the CMT report notes, a 10% change in distracted driving corresponds with a 1.5% change in traffic deaths. That means, in 2023, the drop in cell phone use could have prevented roughly 250 out of more than 40,000 traffic deaths. The report points to other indicators of driver behavior that also improved. Speeding dropped by 9% and hard braking dropped by 7.5%. 

Using the most recent available data from 2022, we compared CMT’s estimates of phone use in each state to traffic death rates. It suggests distracted driving plays some role, but there are many exceptions to the rule. For instance, the three most dangerous states—Wyoming, New Mexico, and Mississippi—have comparable rates of phone use, respectively, to the three safest states—New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  

Traffic deaths and phone use at the state level in 2022. Data sources: CMT, FARS, NHGIS.]

This is because other factors—land use patterns that promote automobile use and road design that encourages high-speed travel—effect traffic deaths more than distracted driving. Researchers at the University of Connecticut found that the number of vehicles and total vehicle miles traveled per person are by far the strongest predictors of statewide traffic deaths. They note, “a 10% increase in vehicle ownership is associated with an 8.62% in traffic fatality rate.” And several studies suggest that by increasing their maximums speed limits by just five miles per hour, many states have seen crashes increase by at least 5% and deaths increase by an even larger margin.

They may not be the lowest hanging fruit, but policies that help limit automobile dependency and lower travel speeds can have major safety benefits, and ultimately help lessen the consequences of distracted driving. Traveling at lower speeds, for example, gives drivers more time to react and makes crashes far less severe, when they do occur.

On a positive note, public awareness of distracted driving seems to have risen in recent years, which could explain some of the reduction. The CMT report notes that media coverage of distracted driving and cellphone use has increased by around 25% per year since 2021, and Google searches have increased by more than 50%. However, this could also have an unintended effect by focusing attention on distracted driving and perpetuating the notion among many transportation professionals that “human error” is typically to blame for crashes, whereas road design is often responsible.

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