In August 2020, the CTIA, a representative of America’s wireless industry, reported that there were 442.5 million U.S. wireless subscriptions, up 20+ million year-over-year. The CTIA further reported that in 2019 consumers exchanged 2.1 trillion text messages, up 52 billion from the prior year, and spent 3.1 trillion minutes talking on their cell phone, up nearly 30% from 2018. Implications of the increasing use of cell phones and messaging continue to be of serious concern to New York’s traffic safety community.

To help address these concerns, the state’s Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee provided funding for the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research to update its earlier study on cell phones and distracted driving. Focusing on the five-year period 2015-2019, this research note presents a variety of information on cell phone use, texting and distracted driving related to fatal and personal injury crashes, tickets issued for violations of the cell phone law, and a 2020 survey on driver behaviors.

While the risks associated with the use of cell phones to talk or text while driving are widely recognized, it is difficult to quantify that risk with a high degree of accuracy based on available crash data. Since the passage of New York’s cell phone law in 2001, cell phone use continues to be a relatively minor factor in crashes, with cell phone use reported as a contributing factor in less than one percent of the fatal and personal injury crashes. This begs the question how many drivers would admit they were using their cell phone when questioned by police after a crash?

Although better reporting would likely result in more crashes being associated with cell phone use, the proportion of crashes in which cell phone use was involved would continue to remain well below the levels of other dangerous driving behaviors such as speeding and impaired driving.

In contrast to the reported involvement of cell phone use in crashes, distracted driving in all its various forms has been a consistent and substantial threat to highway safety for many years. Over the past 10 years, the proportion of fatal and personal injury crashes in which distracted driving was reported as a contributing factor rose slowly from 21% in 2010 to 26% in 2019.

In a 2020 Driver Behavior Survey, one driver in three reported they talk on a cell phone while driving at least sometimes while 16% said they sometimes text and drive. However, almost all of the drivers (93%) thought that texting using a hand-held cell phone affects a driver’s ability to drive safely.

New York State continues to be a national leader in addressing distracted driving through legislation and through the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee’s support for public awareness and enforcement initiatives. More than 1 million tickets were issued for violating the hand-held cell phone and text messaging law between 2015 and 2019. While high visibility enforcement appears to be effective in increasing compliance with the cell phone and texting law, most distracted driving behaviors are not illegal. Reducing these types of distracted driving behaviors requires more efforts to raise awareness of the dangers associated with engaging in any behaviors or actions that take attention away from the driving task.

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