Distracted Driving: Defining and Examining the Problem

Girl driving car and texting on her smart phone
Posted: December 1, 2023

Distracted drivers kill nine people on U.S. roads each day and more than 3,000 every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They injure hundreds of thousands more.  

Distracted drivers may take their eyes or minds off the road or hands off the wheel to focus on something else, such as texting a friend, swatting a bee, applying makeup, or daydreaming. Such behavior can be hazardous.  

Common causes of distracted driving 

Distracted driving takes many forms. While today the prevailing image of an inattentive driver is one who’s texting, using a GPS, or talking on the phone, distractions such as staring at a wreck, talking with a passenger, or attending to a pet also show up on police reports.  

In fact, just about anything that causes the mind or eyes to leave the road or the hands to leave the steering wheel–any break in a driver’s focus – qualifies as a potential distraction.  

One of the more common driving distractions, even in this age of mobile devices, is ancient: being lost in thought. This sort of cognitive distraction can certainly reduce a driver’s ability to focus on the road ahead.  

Defining distraction 

A study by the universities of Toronto and Minnesota found that even some highway signs can distract drivers, especially those designed to reduce car crashes by showing traffic fatality statistics. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there is no singular, generally accepted definition of driver distraction. For reporting purposes, however, the NHTSA recommended that distraction be confined to situations “in which a secondary task, event, or object” resulted in driver inattention.  

In analyzing “what activities comprise distraction,” the NHTSA pointed to a 2001 study conducted by the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina. This observational study, which followed and video-recorded 70 drivers for one week, probed the types of activities drivers attempted while driving. During that time, drivers engaged in the following activities: 

  • Talking with other passengers (15.3 percent) 
  • Preparing to eat, eating or spilling (4.6 percent) 
  • Reaching for something or leaning (3.8 percent) 
  • Cell phone use (1.3 percent) 
  • Manipulating audio controls (1.4 percent) 
  • Smoking (1.6 percent).  

This study was performed more than 20 years ago, before cell phones became widely available and accessible. In recent years, according to a 2022 factsheet from the NHTSA, the percentage of drivers visibly manipulating handheld devices while driving has hovered around three percent.  

According to information made available on the New York Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee website, in recent years the most common form of distracted driving has been cell phone use and texting.  

Watching out for signs of distraction 

Ironically, some technology created to make texting safer for drivers has not proved effective because it addresses only the problems of visual and manual distraction but not those of cognitive distraction.  A cognitively distracted motorist might fail to hear car horns or sirens.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control, drivers should not multitask. This includes adjusting mirrors, selecting music, eating, making a phone call, or reading a text or email. The CDC cautions that, if possible, these activities should be done “before or after [the] trip, not during.”  

When it comes to identifying other distracted drivers on the road, signs of erratic driving— such as abrupt speed changes, veering, or sudden brake application—could be an indication that another driver is not paying attention 

Distracted driving is, in a sense, a form of impaired driving because it takes the driver’s attention away from driving activity. 

 A motorist who texts while driving is six times likelier to have an accident than a drunk driver, according to some sources. In fact, research has shown that drivers using mobile devices, either hand-held or hands-free, behave like intoxicated drivers at the threshold of the legal limit for alcohol. 

The dangers posed by distracted drivers are why almost all states have a primary-enforcement law allowing police officers to stop motorists they believe are texting.  

Distracted-driving laws in New York  

The State of New York prohibits manually operating any mobile device while driving. Subject to some limited exceptions, New York law prohibits the use of cell phones for talking, texting, or any other purpose while driving a motor vehicle on public roadways. Under New York law, “using” a cell phone includes “holding a mobile telephone to, or in the immediate proximity of, the user’s ear” while operating a motor vehicle. Thus, according to the law, it may be presumed that a motorist is using a cell phone even if the phone is not in physical contact with the ear. 


According to the New York DMV, the penalties for using a cell phone while driving include fines ranging from $50 to $450, depending on the number of offenses, and up to five driver violation points.  


Junior and probationary drivers with a Class DJ or MJ driver’s license or learner’s permit who violate the cell-phone law risk a 120-day permit or license suspension.  A second offense within six months after the license or permit is restored may result in the license or permit being revoked for one year.  


In addition, anyone who hurts someone on New York roads while driving distracted can be held civilly liable.  


Mobile device tips 


The NHTSA offers drivers these tips, in order of advisability, for managing a mobile device while driving: 


  • Put your phone in the trunk, glove box, back seat, or otherwise out of reach.
  • If you can’t do that, pull over in a safe place to send or view a text or arrange before hitting the road for a passenger to be the designated texter.
  • Do not scroll through apps, including social media platforms, while driving.  


Looking for solutions 

Psychologists, neuroscientists, and other specialists are looking for ways to make highways safer from  distracted drivers, according to the American Psychological Association. Some of that research has turned up heretofore little-considered distractions. For example, research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that if you’re thinking about work too much, you may not be paying enough attention to the road.  

Stress can directly impact driving. Cognitively distracted driving is when your attention is taken away from the road due to a wandering mind. It’s one of the three categories of distracted driving.  

By the same token, psychologists across the country worry about partially automated cars that disengage drivers from vehicle operation. One of the ways to prevent distracted driving is to get young drivers to understand the dangers of using their smartphones while driving. School programs can emphasize safe driving and parents can help young drivers develop good driving habits such as turning off their smartphones when they turn their engines on.  

William Mattar, P.C., runs its Drive Distracted, Lives Impacted program each year to educate teens about the dangers of distracted driving. 

Parents can also insist that their teen drivers install special smartphone apps that turn phones off when the phone is in a vehicle. Generally, tools like this have the potential to help decrease the number of smartphone-based accidents. 

Statistics show distracted driving accounts for one in  six deadly vehicle accidents. Drivers who text are 23 times more likely to cause an accident, and those who use cell phones are roughly 30 percent more likely to be involved in an accident.  


Hurt by a distracted driver? Call William Mattar, P.C.  

Distracted driving is dangerous; inattentive drivers hurt hundreds of thousands of people every year. If you’ve been injured by a distracted driver on New York roads, you are probably looking for an attorney to help you navigate the legal system and help you obtain maximum recovery for pain and suffering while you focus on recovering. We can help. Call the experienced attorneys at William Mattar, P.C., at 844-444-4444, or fill out our online form requesting a free initial consultation. 

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