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Life on the Road: The Cost of Distracted Driving

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

Driver error has long been responsible for the majority of crashes in the United States. In fact, a national study found that human factors such as speeding, inattention, distraction and performance errors were found to be a factor in more than 92 percent of all crashes.

Accidents caused by inattentive driving habits can have real consequences. From injury to death and everything in between, distracted driving is a serious problem. When translated into a dollar value, the economic impact is shocking.

Distracted Driving and Its Economic Impact

Distracted driving in the United States costs approximately $175 billion a year, according to a 2014 federal study titled “The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that all highway accidents represent nearly $1 trillion in economic damages.

Highway crashes cost $871 billion a year — $277 billion in physical damage and another $594 billion in “societal harm,” such as traffic congestion and lost productivity, according to the agency. Furthermore, the study shows distracted drivers are responsible for at least 17 percent of all highway crashes.

Distractions include talking on cell phones, texting, talking to passengers, eating and other non-driving activities such as adjusting the radio and/or mirrors. For commercial motor carriers, distracted driving can begin outside of the cab. For instance, a fatigued driver whose inattention leads to an improperly distributed, overweight truckload can stress numerous elements on the vehicle including tires, brakes, downhill speed, and more, further increasing the risk of an accident. In addition, outside influences, such as road construction, erratic motorists and police activity can have a hefty financial and safety impact.

Driving a commercial motor vehicle requires laser focus. According to the Smith System, a commercial driver-safety training program, the typical driver leaves a one to two second gap between their vehicle and the vehicle in front of them. Distractions on the road can slow down reaction time by a second or more, rendering that gap virtually useless.

Other distractions commercial drivers face include:

  • Smart devices: Commercial motor vehicles are loaded with smart devices, all of which can pose a distraction. This includes everything from cellphones and CB radios to navigation devices, such as maps and GPS units.
  • Eating and drinking: This applies more to long-haul drivers who live in their trucks.
  • Smoking and drug and alcohol use: Lighting a cigarette or flicking ash requires the driver to divert attention from the road; and while random drug testing is helpful, drug and alcohol use are still a major problem for commercial motor carriers.

However, without the right fleet management tools, distracted driving can be hard to detect and probably plays a greater role than we know. In addition, if a distracted driver rear ends another driver who tests positive for alcohol, the incident is likely to show on reports as alcohol-related even though the intoxicated driver was not at fault, the study said.

Comprehensive Costs of Distracted Driving

“Crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted resulted in 3,267 fatalities, 735,000 nonfatal injuries and damaged 3.3 million vehicles in property-damage-only crashes in 2010,” the NHTSA report said. “This represents about 10 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities and 18 percent of all nonfatal crashes. These crashes cost $39.7 billion, roughly 16 percent of all economic costs from motor vehicle crashes.”

Distracted driving was just one of five types of adverse driver behavior studied by the NHTSA. The others were alcohol use, speeding, failure to wear a seat belt and riding a motorcycle without a helmet. The actual reports of distracted driving played a role in 10 percent of automotive fatalities and 17 percent of injury accidents, according to the study.

In addition to accidents, distracted driving leads to lost quality of life and to traffic congestion, which estimates put at $28 billion a year in damages, including the added fuel costs.

Distracted Driving and the Unknown

While studies have confirmed that at least 17 percent of accidents are due to distracted driving, researchers feel the number may be far greater. That assumption is because most crashes tied to distracted driving rely on self-reporting of the distracted behavior, according to a different distracted driving study from the NHTSA.

“There are negative implications associated with distracted driving — especially in conjunction with a crash. Survey research shows that self-reporting of negative behavior is lower than actual occurrence of that negative behavior,” the study said. “There is no reason to believe that self-reporting of distracted driving to a law enforcement officer would differ. The inference is that the reported driver distraction during crashes is lower than the actual occurrence.”

The distracted driving data rely heavily on police reports, which can vary in detail and accuracy from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Additionally, officials estimate that thousands of minor crashes go unreported every year.

Nevertheless, while pinpointing the exact economic impact of distracted driving may be impossible, there is no doubt the practice causes real harm. By instituting hands-free electronic policies and educating drivers, fleet managers can cut back on potential losses and work to keep their drivers safer.

At Teletrac Navman, safety is a top priority, and we have taken steps to help reduce driver distraction on the road. For example, drivers cannot use some of the features of our device in cab while the truck is in motion.

Fleets equipped with GPS fleet tracking technology can use data to push better driving performance. To learn more about ways to measure driver risk and digitally replay unsafe events on the road to better train drivers, visit-

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