What Counts as Distracted Driving?

What Counts as Distracted Driving?

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

Every year, over 30,000 people in the United States will die as a result of a car accident. Despite an increase in safety features and technology designed to protect drivers, crashes have increased steadily, most of which can be attributed to human behavior. One of the greatest threats to road safety comes in the form of distracted drivers. Distracted driving is now considered the number one cause of all car accidents, but the forms that it takes can vary.

Although newer safety developments such as the lane-keeping system and driver alert features of programs like Ford's Co-Pilot360 safety suite can help to mitigate the negative outcomes of distracted driving, they can't prevent every incident and cannot be relied on as a replacement for good driving habits. It is always the responsibility of the driver to operate their vehicle in a safe and proper manner.

Types of Distracted Driving

There are many different types of distractions that can emerge while operating a vehicle. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that if you’re not able to pay total attention to the road, it’s a distraction. The CDC categorizes distractions into three distinct groups: Visual, manual, and cognitive.

Visual distractions occur anytime you take your eyes off the road, manual distractions occur anytime you take your hands off the wheel, and cognitive distractions occur anytime your mind isn’t focused on the task of driving. Some tasks, like operating a cell phone, encompass all three forms of distraction at once, since it involves taking your eyes off of the road, taking your hands off of the wheel, and thinking about something other than the road.

Though cell phones get the brunt of the blame, they actually aren’t responsible for most of the accidents caused by distracted driving. Eerie Insurance analyzed the accidents that were caused by distracted driving and found that:

  • 61% Daydreaming or other wandering thoughts
  • 14% Cell phone
  • 6% Some event outside of the car
  • 5% Other passengers
  • 2% Reaching for device brought into vehicle (gps, etc.)
  • 1% Eating or drinking
  • 1% Adjusting climate controls
  • 1% Adjusting vehicle controls or devices
  • 1% Moving object in car (like a fly or a dog)
  • 1% Smoking

All of these are forms of driving while distracted, and they can all lead to an accident. There are preventative steps that can be taken to help negate some of the effects, and hopefully, help you to avoid an accident.

Cell Phone Usage

Cell phone use is one of the most predictable forms of driving distractions. The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that at any typical moment during the day, approximately six percent of all drivers are using their phone. Though it can be tempting to dismiss cell phone usage as being primarily a problem for young drivers, there actually wasn’t a significant decrease in usage between drivers aged 16-24 and 25-69. All told, it amounted to less than a single percentage point decrease. Cell phone usage is a problem for everyone.

Though many have tried using hands-free talking devices for talking on the phone, studies show that these don’t improve safety significantly. The problem is that cell phones aren’t just a manual distraction, they’re also a cognitive one, and hands-free devices still require some user inputs, negating the positive aspects.

As of right now, texting while driving is illegal in 47 states, with the remaining states either examining legislation to ban texting, or else imposing significant restrictions. In 2016, half-a-million people were ticketed for using their cell phone while driving in California alone.

The interesting thing is that most people would agree that texting while driving should be illegal. If you’re a particularly fast texter, it may take you as few as five seconds to type a message to a friend. At 55 miles per hour, that’s the length of a football field, enough time to make a serious mistake.

So, why do many people continue to text and drive? Simply put, many people believe that they are better at multitasking than anyone else and can manage driving and texting simultaneously. What’s amazing is that this view persists despite countless research that shows that no one is actually good at multitasking, and the people who think they’re good at it are consistently the worst, managing to do three tasks poorly instead of one task well.

Feeling the need to be “on-call” or feel a sense of connectedness can be another powerful motivator, and that is less easy to combat. Thankfully there are apps that can block notifications from coming while you’re driving. Failing that, putting your phone out of reach in either a glove compartment or backseat is another alternative.

A young woman applies makeup while driving and on the phone

Taking Your Hand off the Wheel

This one ties in with cell phone usage since that’s frequently why drivers have one hand off of the wheel, but even taking your hand off of the wheel to grab a sip of coffee can have unfortunate consequences.

This is called a “manual” distraction, and while you may be (mostly) cognitively focused, you aren’t as mechanically engaged with your car as is necessary for safe driving.

A study conducted by the NHTSA in 2012 established that people who were eating while driving had a decrease in reaction time of over 44%. Drinking a beverage (non-alcoholic) makes you 18% more likely to have poor lane control.

The reasons that people take their hand off of the wheel vary from reflexively scratching an itch to attending to personal grooming. Regardless of how “good” of a reason it is to take your hand off of the wheel, there’s a reason that this behavior falls into the category of distracted driving. People who are driving with one hand are just worse drivers than people driving with two. Think of it this way: Have you ever seen a serious driver only use one hand on the track? Of course not. Great drivers want to have every advantage they can on the road.

There will be some times that you don’t have a choice but to take your hand off of the wheel. If you’re driving a manual, for example, you’ll obviously need to shift gears. Likewise, everyone understands if you need to drink something or push hair out of your eyes, but by approaching it seriously hopefully people can see the difference between scratching their nose and eating a three-course meal while driving. One percent of distracted driving accidents were caused by smoking, an activity that involves removing a hand from the wheel multiple times and really has no place in a car.

If you need to take your hand off of the wheel, the best approach is to prepare in advance. Wait for a moment when traffic is stopped, or when you’re on a straight stretch of road with no upcoming tricky situations. Scan intently in advance, wait for the right moment, complete the necessary activity, and then return back to a safer position.


Passengers are one of the most prevalent cognitive distractions. Though it’s fun to bring a few friends along on a road trip, it’s important for them to be people who can let you keep your focus on driving as much as possible.

If you anticipate a spot of tough traffic, it’s good to get in the habit of asking your passengers to wait a moment or hold on. If they can’t understand that, then letting them walk the next time they want to get somewhere is a good educational experience.

Unfortunately for parents, ignoring their passengers or leaving them by the highway isn’t an option, so it’s important to think about the potential for distractions in advance. Depending on the age of your child, making sure they have everything they may need before the start of a journey or giving them an “important” task like counting cars you pass or looking for deer can be good strategies. Other parents have had a lot of success in finding a music playlist their child likes a lot and playing it only during road trips. There aren’t any absolutes here, except that the most important thing you can do for yourself and your child is to get to your destination safely.


Being inattentive is dangerous in a lot of situations, but perhaps the most dangerous time is when you’re driving. So, why do so many people do it?

The short answer is “well, they’re bored,” and the longer answer is “they’ve decided not to take control over their own focus and determine whether or not to be engaged.”

It’s easy to let your attention span dwindle to that of a goldfish’s. People are frequently reaching for their phone because even a moment passing without something to do feels interminable to someone who has lost their ability to filter or maintain attention.

A recent study actually showed that most people were only able to focus on a single task for approximately five minutes before they interrupted their own workflow to do something else. The average person picks up their phone 150 times per a day, enough to permanently damage their attention span.

So, what can be done?

This is one of those times where practice is necessary, and the best practice is simply doing the task and knowing that it’s going to be tough. Some people have found that listening to music that doesn’t have lyrics helps them to focus. Practicing focus during times where you’re not driving should help you to improve during driving times as well.

Monitor how many times during the day you interrupt yourself mid-task to do something else, like check your phone, and then work hard to expand the period of time that you can remain focused.

Being well-rested is another key to maintaining focus.


Driving while tired is a distraction that’s become epidemic, with nearly 60% of people admitting to driving while feeling sleepy. Driving drowsy is cognitively no different than driving drunk, but while most drivers would never consider driving under the influence, it has become commonplace to drive while exhausted.

Part of this is that we have a tendency to do everything while exhausted. Studies have pretty conclusively shown that almost no one is getting enough sleep, which costs them a lot more than just the potential of being in an accident. Obviously, if you can, increasing your sleep to eight hours a night is great for a lot of aspects of your life, from continued cardiovascular health to not wrapping your car around a tree.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of things impacting people’s ability to get a good night’s rest, whether that’s shift work, or just being pulled in too many directions at once. But whatever stress exists, we’ll go ahead and say that getting in a car accident has never made anyone’s life less stressful.

So, what are some ways that you can drive safely even if you can’t get a good night’s rest? Well, speed metal is a genre for a reason, and it’s mostly to keep drivers awake. Finding good, energetic, cannot-possibly-fall-asleep-to-it music is a good strategy to making sure you’re awake.

Exercise is another way to keep yourself energized. If you notice yourself feeling a little sluggish, pull your car over at the next rest stop and get your blood pumping with a few jumping jacks or a brisk walk.

Drink plenty of cold water, and even caffeine if you need it.

This infographic is full of additional ways to avoid becoming a drowsy driving statistic.

[click the infographic below]

drowsy driving infographic

Sources: Distracted Driving, Centers for Disease Control | Common Driving Distractions, Compass Law Group | Can You Guess Our Biggest Driving Distraction?, Erie Insurance | Are You Driving Intexticated?, AAA | Drowsy Driving, Sleep Foundation | Distracted Driving: We're All Guilty, So What Should We Do About It?, NPR | Distracted Driving, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration | Distracted Driving,Insurance Institute for Highway Safety |

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