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IIHS study finds drivers fiddling with cellphones up 57% from last survey; contributing factor in > 800 crash deaths in US

Manipulating a cellphone was a contributing factor in more than 800 crash deaths on US roads during 2017 amid a marked increase in the percentage of drivers observed interacting with cellphones, new IIHS research indicates. The estimated number of deaths, however, still represents a fraction of the overall crash death toll.


Virginia drivers observed in a 2018 IIHS roadside survey were 57 percent more likely to be manipulating a cellphone than drivers in a 2014 survey. The percentage of drivers observed manipulating a phone rose from 2.3% in 2014 to 3.4% in 2018.

At the same time, drivers were less likely to be seen simply holding a cellphone or talking on a hand-held phone than in the prior survey. The finding is consistent with research indicating that drivers are talking on hand-held phones less and fiddling with them more often than in recent years.

In 2018, 3.7% of drivers in Northern Virginia were observed talking on a hand-held cellphone, compared with 4.1% of drivers in 2014, while 2.8% of drivers in 2018 were seen holding a cellphone, compared with 4.9% in the prior survey.


The problem of distracted driving, especially cellphone use, continues to raise concerns. A 2018 national survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 64% of respondents consider distracted driving a much bigger problem today than it was three years ago.

Estimating crash risk. About 37,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2017, the most recent year of data available. Assuming the prevalence of phone manipulation nationwide rose as it did in Northern Virginia to 3.4%, and assuming, based on the latest research, that fatal crash risk is 66% higher when manipulating a phone, then more than 800 of the estimated crash deaths in 2017 could be attributed to phone manipulation.

This estimate is based on work by IIHS and other researchers describing how the estimated risk and prevalence of phone use can be combined to estimate the number of crash deaths that could be attributed to phone use in a given year. The 66% increase in fatal crash risk associated with manipulating a cellphone relative to driving when other secondary behaviors were present is a finding of a 2018 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

The latest data suggest that drivers are using their phones in riskier ways. The observed shift in phone use is concerning because studies consistently link manipulating a cellphone while driving to increased crash risk.

—David Kidd, co-author and senior research scientist with HLDI

Cellphone use affects how drivers scan and process information from the roadway. Drivers generally take their eyes off the road to dial, send texts and browse the web on a hand-held phone—all activities that fall under the rubric of manipulating the phone. Drivers engaged in cellphone conversations tend to concentrate their gaze toward the center of the roadway, but their attention still may be diverted from driving and make it difficult for them to process at what they are looking.

Tracking trends in distraction. Procedures for the 2018 update followed those used in 2014. IIHS stationed observers at 12 locations across four Northern Virginia communities, on straight stretches of roads, at signalized intersections and at roundabouts in March 2018. Observers noted nearly 12,000 drivers in the 2018 survey and more than 14,000 drivers in 2014 during the morning, afternoon or early evening on weekdays. Researchers noted if drivers were engaging in one or more of 12 visible secondary behaviors while moving or stopped at red lights.

About 23% of drivers were engaged in one or more distracting activities:

  • Talking on hand-held cellphone

  • Manipulating hand-held cellphone (excludes looking at phone in mount)

  • Simply holding hand-held cellphone (i.e. not obviously manipulating or talking)

  • Wearing Bluetooth earpiece or headset with mic

  • Wearing headphones or ear buds

  • Manipulating in-vehicle system (touching radio, climate control, touchscreen display or other controls; excludes operating stalks or buttons on steering wheel)

  • Manipulating or holding mobile electronic device other than cellphone

  • Talking or singing

  • Eating or drinking

  • Smoking

  • Grooming

  • Other (reaching for object, reading print material, adjusting sun visor, putting on glasses, holding another object)

About 14% of drivers were engaged in non-phone-related secondary behaviors in 2014 and 2018, which exceeded the proportion of drivers seen using phones in both years. Relative to 2014, drivers were more likely to be observed manipulating an in-vehicle system, grooming themselves, or manipulating or holding an electronic device other than a phone after researchers adjusted for community, perceived driver gender and age, time of day and roadway situation.

Drivers in 2018 were less likely to be talking or singing while driving alone, smoking, or wearing headphones or earbuds. The prevalence of eating or drinking, talking or singing with a passenger present, wearing a Bluetooth device, or engaging in some other visible secondary behavior wasn’t significantly different between 2014 and 2018.

We didn’t find evidence of an increase in distracted driving overall between the 2014 and 2018 roadside surveys. For cellphone-related distraction in general, we expect a continued shift in the way people interact with the devices as the technology evolves.

—David Kidd

The percentage of crash deaths related to distraction in recent years has hovered at about 8–10 percent of all crash deaths, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show. During the past three years, distraction-affected crash deaths have trended downward.

The number of fatalities in distraction-affected crashes fell 9.3% from 3,490 in 2016 to 3,166 in 2017, representing 8.5% of total fatalities for the year. In 2015, 3,526 people were killed in distraction-affected crashes.

Fatality data likely underestimate the number of deaths caused by distracted drivers, IIHS said. Despite efforts to determine cellphone use by drivers in crashes, such data continue to be difficult to collect as they largely depend on people truthfully telling law enforcement officers what they were doing or voluntarily handing over their phones for inspection.


  • Kidd, David G.; Chaudhary, Neil K. (2019) “Changes in the sources of distracted driving among Northern Virginia drivers in 2014 and 2018: a comparison of results from two roadside observation surveys” Journal of Safety Research doi: 10.1016/j.jsr.2018.12.004


Thomas Pedersen

In Denmark it is illegal to even touch the phone in any way while in traffic. Except if it is firmly mounted and connected wirelessly - then you're allowed to receive calls.

If you get caught, there is $220 fine and a cut in your licence (3 cuts within 3 years and you have to retake the licence - which usually costs at least $500-1000, provided you pass the tests the first time around).

Using a handheld phone, and particularly texting on a smartphone (in the old days with actual keyboard, many were able to type successfully without looking at the display) seriously impairs ones ability to pay attention to the surroudings and operate a vehicle safely.


They're beginning to crack down on this in Australia as well, and it's long overdue. The problem is that this activity is almost ubiquitous now - every time I drive, I see multiple occurrences of people fiddling with their phones. The problem has worsened with increasing traffic in cities. When you are crawling along at low speed, with frequent stopping, people seem unable to resist looking at their phone to fill that 30 sec space when they're stuck at lights or traffic is backed up.

I think we'll get to that point where technology will be built into the phone or car that will prevent their full use whilst in the vehicle. Sadly, there is a new menace in the vehicle, the multiple touchscreens that are becoming common. Using these on the move is just as hazardous.


Car makers aren't improving the situation.  They keep making more and more functions like climate control reliant on touch controls that you can't operate blind, and sometimes can't work with gloves on (a real nuisance where it gets cold).

I wish the NHTSA would force a return to regular knobs and levers which can be operated with eyes on the road.


Smart Watches offer another distraction.
There are some who see the product as the problem and given societal condition and vulnerabilities to misuse it could be argued the makers or sellers cold be forced to safe the product under standard consumer protection liability laws.
There must be easy fixes if there were any will.

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