April: Springing Up Distracted Drivers

April is National Distracted Driver Month, but drivers’  may be too distracted to have noticed that. The National Safety Council began this public service campaign around 2011, but the data on driving distraction has significantly changed over the past six years.  We don’t know if we have been taken as April’s Fools.

We begin with a definition: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention from driving… “it includes talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking…talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the radio…”


In 2009, the annual data released by NHTSA showed sixteen percent (16%) of fatal crashes involved distracted driving. They added that this number was probably under reported. In a more recent 2014 report, the NHTSA observed that distracted driving accounted was the cause for just ten percent (10%) of fatal crashes. It is hard to imagine that drivers have become less distracted and the accident rate is droping. The underlying reason is that the NHTSA changed the baseline for reporting data around 2011.

The rate of most distractions… eating and drinking in the car, and fiddling with the radio has probably stayed constant since 2011. The Smartphone, as distraction, did not.


 Pew Research reports that in the Spring of 2011, only thirty-five percent (35%) of Americans had a smartphone. By 2016, the ownership rate was sixty-four (64%).

It is hard to reconcile that as smartphone use has increased  the overall accident rate from distracted driving has declined. 

Yet  another government report, called NOPUS, provides confusing  data too. It observes for 2015 that the percentage of  drivers text-messaging or visibly manipulating handheld devices and phones in cars was between 2.2 and 3.8 percent. A different source, a  survey done for AT&T reports that seventy percent (70%) of drivers admitted to using their smartphone in the car.


There have been technological fixes between 2011 and 2017 that could have reduced the dangers, but there is not a consensus that they help. Consider the three known sources of driver distraction: visual distraction (taking your eyes off the road to fumble for your phone), manual distraction (fumbling for the phone and then holding it to your ear) and last but not least, cognitive distraction (dividing your attention between the road and the message content). Phone enthusiasts believe that drivers are now safer because of hands-free calling. Hands-free phones ‘ seemingly’ reduce the visual and manual distraction


The big unknown, the piece that we have no hard evidence about, is the cognitive distraction. Advocates like the Ford Motor Company argue  that voice-activated dashboard devices reduce some of the risks.  But, for a  counter-point see: https://www.aaafoundation.org/measuring-cognitive-distractions. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety disputes the fundamental assumption that hands-free make us safer. Driving requires focused mental attention, but so do the words we pick and choose when we talk or search on our phones. Most of us overestimate our dexterity at switching between the road and a cognitively demanding task. That puts our lives, and the lives of others, at risk.

The month of April is a time of rebirth- it is when we celebrate Spring, religious holidays, the return of baseball, and, with less rejoicing, tax season. Bringing National Distracted Driver Awareness into that list seems like a noble pairing, but it resembles tax season in a significant way- if only we could understand it better and get the numbers straight.