Is Distracted Driving Decreasing or Are We Hiding Distractions?

Changing Driver Behavior
Apr 11/2018 Published by: Lytx Lytx Telematics

The title of this article implies I’ll be able to answer a question; that being, are drivers engaging in less distracting activities while driving or are they getting better at hiding distracting activities while driving? Unfortunately, I won’t be able to directly answer that question; however, I’ll provide some evidence to support my own personal theory. 

By now it is common knowledge distracted driving presents a serious and potentially deadly activity. In 2009, 5,474 people (16 percent of the total fatalities) were killed in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported in the crash report. An estimated additional 448,000 (20 percent of the total injury crashes) were injured in vehicle crashes that were reported to involve distracted driving.

The proportion of fatalities involving driver distraction increased from 10 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2009 (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2010). These simple statistics suggest that distracted driving is becoming more prevalent. However, these statistics can be misleading. First, until recently, many police accident reports (the forms police complete to record the circumstances in a vehicle crash) did not have a category to record cell phone use.

Second, distraction is a hot topic. Police are more likely to “look” for distraction in a crash as they have been educated on the topic and received training in how to determine if the crash involved distraction. Thus, as more of these police accident reports are updated to include cell phone use and police are better educated and trained in how to assess distraction-related crashes, it’s only natural that crashes involving distracted driving would increase.

Those statistics reflect crashes involving distracted driving, what about the actual prevalence of distracted driving? The figures shown by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say driver electronic use while driving from 2006 to 2015 has increased significantly. As can be seen in the figures from the NTSA, hand-held cell phone and headset use and visible manipulation of a hand-held device has increase as much as 5% for visible manipulation of a hand-held device.

This seems counterintuitive as many cell phone and texting laws were introduced after 2006; thus, the rates should have decreased after 2006. However, I conducted a study that found truck drivers were largely ignoring State cell phone laws. This doesn’t necessarily mean the laws are ineffective, it suggests they haven’t been properly enforced. A recently completed high-visibility enforcement demonstration in Hartford, Connecticut and Syracuse, New York supports this contention. Cogrove et al. (2011) reported a 57 percent and 32 percent reduction in driver hand-held cell phone use while driving in Syracuse and Hartford, respectively. The same high-visibility enforcement campaign resulted in a 72 percent and 32 percent reduction in drivers who were texting while driving in Hartford and Syracuse, respectively.

So, are drivers getting better or getting better at hiding? My guess would be a little of each. Some people will choose to assert their independence. I hate to date myself, but when seat belt laws were first mandated I remember you could purchase a seat belt-like strap that would attach to your shirt. That way it would look, from the outside of the vehicle, as if you were wearing your seat belt. I also remember a news report of a gentleman who placed a mannequin in his car so he could drive in the HOV lane. These same types of individuals will find ways to “hide” distracted driving. The only way to truly know is to have a video camera in the vehicle.


Dr. Hickman joined the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2004 and became the Group Leader for the Behavioral Analysis and Applications group in 2009.  He has significant experience in the design, delivery, and implementation of safety and health improvement interventions using behavior-based and person-based psychology and human factors applications.  His primary areas of research include community-wide (large scale) applications of behavior-based safety, self-management, and organizational culture change techniques as well as assessing driver behavior, fatigue, work/rest cycles, and driver distraction in commercial motor operations. Although specializing in commercial motor vehicle safety, Dr. Hickman’s research interests are broadly defined as occupational health and safety.

Dr. Hickman has been the PI, Co-PI, or Project Manager in 35 research projects (totaling over $10 million).  These research projects include competitive research awards from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mine Health and Safety Administration, National Transportation Research Center, Inc., Transportation Research Board, Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, and the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. Dr. Hickman has over 60 professional presentations, including invited talks at Duke Energy, Sherwin-Williams, National Private Truck Council, Maersk, Pike Energy Corporation, and XL Insurance. Dr. Hickman has over 30 scientific publications and technical reports, served as a scientific reviewer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in fiscal year 2012, and currently serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Accident Analysis and Prevention, and Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.

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