Blog | Data Analysis

Rising Phone Distraction Calls For New Methods of Measurement

November 16, 2020

Phone distraction while driving is generally understood as dangerous. Across the U.S., there are national awareness campaigns promoting slogans like “Don’t Text and Drive” and “It Can Wait” – you see similar messages on electronic billboards and highway signs. Individual states are passing laws to strengthen penalties for handheld phone use while driving. 

Despite these efforts to curb the problem, phone distraction is on the rise. In CMT’s new report, “The Harsh Realities of Phone Distraction,” analysis shows that 41% of daytime drives in 2019 featured phone distraction, a 15% increase since 2017. 

The smartphone was introduced into the market in 2009, and saw widespread adoption starting in 2010. Since then, road deaths of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians have been steadily rising in the United States after a long period of decline. In 2010, there were 32,885 fatalities from car accidents according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); in 2018, the last year with complete data from NHTSA, featured 36,560 road deaths, an 11% overall increase. 

Source: NHTSA, eMarketers


That increase cannot be directly tied to smartphone use – often there isn’t an easy way for officers responding to a crash to know phone use was a factor unless the driver themselves indicates that was the case. But that problem isn’t one that should just be taken for granted – we need better ways to measure the scope of phone distraction on our roads. 

NHTSA co-sponsors the National Occupant Protection Use Surveys (NOPUS), the current method the U.S. government uses for measuring how much distraction is taking place on the road. This survey is conducted by sending people with clipboards to intersections to count how many drivers are using their phones while approaching or stopped at a stop light between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

NHTSA then extrapolates those numbers to a nationwide average to determine what percentage of drivers are distracted by their phones at any given time. Based on numbers released in 2019, 9.7% of drivers in 2018 were using their phones behind the wheel at any given daytime moment. That number is concerning in its own right; the 2017 numbers were 5.3%. 

Source: CMT, 2020

In contrast, CMT’s analysis of millions of drives in 2019 shows 41% of drives in the U.S. between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. showed distraction of at least 20 seconds. This is measuring something different – trips that have significant phone distraction vs. phone distraction at any given moment – but based on the hit-or-miss nature of the NOPUS methodology, we believe this figure is more accurate and illustrative of what level of distraction is happening on the roads.  

The data shows the problem is real, and it is growing. To see a much more in depth discussion and analysis of the scope of phone distraction on the roads today, please download and read “The Harsh Realities of Phone Distraction.”