Distracted driving

Drivers are nearly 3X less distracted in the UK. Why?

December 4, 2023

One of the benefits of measuring how over 10 million people drive across the world is that you can begin to understand how the differences impact road safety in different countries. If you combine this data-driven research with driving culture surveys in each country, you get a clearer picture of why people behave behind the wheel the way they do. From there, you can develop solutions to improve road safety.

This is the approach we took with our latest research. We analyzed screen interaction behaviors — which can indicate that a driver is texting, emailing, TikToking, playing games, and more — across hundreds of thousands of drivers in the UK and the US from January 2021 through September 2023. We then surveyed over 1,000 drivers in both the US and the UK to better understand distracted driving, road safety, and cultural patterns in each country. We conducted the survey in November 2023.

Distracted driving by country

What we found was that US drivers are nearly three times more distracted than UK drivers. From January 2021 to September 2023, US drivers spent an average of 2 minutes and 11 seconds driving distracted for every hour on the road. In the UK, this figure was 44 seconds for every hour on the road, 186% lower. 

This discrepancy in distracted driving behaviors has translated to more road fatalities in the US per driver. The National Traffic Highway Safety Admission estimates that distracted driving killed over 3,500 people in the US in 2021, though they say the real number is likely much higher. In the UK, the Department for Transport estimates that close to 350 people were killed by distraction or impairment in 2022. With 231 million drivers in the US and 51 million in the UK, this means that US drivers are 120% more likely to be killed by a distracted driver.

CMT estimates that for every 10% increase in distracted driving, the crash rate rises by 1.4%. With levels of distracted driving reaching 186% more than in the UK, US drivers face a 35% higher likelihood of crashing due to distracted driving.

Distracted driving over time

The two countries have trended in opposite directions for distracted driving since 2021. In the US, distracted driving rose from 2021 to 2022 by 9.4%. It then fell 9.6% in 2023, hitting 2 minutes and 6 seconds per hour.

The UK has seen the opposite. Distraction dropped by nearly 20% in 2022 to 41 seconds per hour. In 2023, it’s increased by 6.5%, reaching 44 seconds. 

The difference in distraction levels has fluctuated over the years. The biggest gap between the US and the UK was in March 2022, when drivers in the US were distracted for 2 minutes and 22 seconds versus the UK’s 39 seconds, a 239% difference. The smallest gap was one year earlier in March 2021, when distraction in the UK reached 56 seconds compared to 1 minute and 58 seconds in the US, a 112% difference.

Seasonal distracted driving 

Seasonal patterns are different as well. In the UK, summer sees the highest levels of distraction with 48 seconds per hour. Winter and spring only see one second more. Fall has the lowest level of distracted driving with 43 seconds per hour.

In the US, winter has had the highest levels of distracted driving of all the seasons over the last two years. It then falls in the spring, increases slightly in the summer, and then drops in the fall to its lowest point of the year at 2 minutes and 11 seconds.

Distracted driving on holidays 

While the data shows that the broader behavioral driving trends between the US and the UK are different, day-to-day distraction patterns during common holidays are similar. Distracted driving typically increases on holidays. People coordinate with friends and family and travel to see each other more often than on regular days. The increased communication between families and friends transforms into distracted driving. It happens both in the US and the UK.

For example, we analyzed the 28 days before and after Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter in the US and the UK, about four weeks in total. Instead of showing a percentage change, which would be larger for the UK due to the lower level of distracted driving to begin with, we’re showing the change in seconds for distracted driving per hour for each holiday. 

On Christmas, drivers in the UK spend 14 seconds more time driving distracted than they do on days around Christmas, jumping from 45 seconds per hour to 59 seconds. In the US, drivers spend 15 seconds more using their phones while driving on Christmas, going from 2 minutes and 14 seconds to 2 minutes and 30 seconds. On New Year’s Day, the increase is 11 seconds in both countries. But on Easter, drivers in the UK are distracted for 14 seconds more per hour, compared to 8 seconds more per hour in the US. This discrepancy may be because Good Friday and Easter Monday are bank holidays in the UK, making it more of a significant traveling holiday for UK drivers.

Beyond the holidays, large cultural events drive up distracted driving in both the UK and the US. We measured the distracted driving impact of three of the largest cultural events since January of 2021 in the UK: The Euro Cup finals, the Queen’s funeral, and King Charles’s coronation. These events are somewhat different from typical holiday dynamics. Unlike on holidays, when the main event is gathering with friends and family, these events offered something drivers didn’t want to miss, something they may drive distracted to see.

The Euro Cup finals were played on July 11, 2021, at the Wembley Stadium in London with England ultimately falling to Italy in penalties. In the four weeks around the finals, UK drivers spent 51 seconds distracted on average. On the day of the finals, distraction increased by 24%, reaching 1 minute and 3 seconds of distraction per hour, a 12-second increase.

The Super Bowl is a similar event for US drivers. We analyzed the distracted driving behaviors for Super Bowls 2021 through 2023. US drivers were distracted for 2 minutes and 15 seconds per hour on a typical day around the Super Bowl. This figure rose to 2 minutes and 25 seconds per hour on the day of the Super Bowl, an 8% increase.

King Charles’s coronation and the Queen’s funeral also created elevated levels of distracted driving. On the day of the coronation, drivers were 19% more distracted than normal, rising from 45 seconds to 54 seconds per hour. The increase on the day of the Queen’s funeral was even higher — drivers were 26% more distracted, increasing from 41 to 52 seconds per hour. For a US comparison, distracted driving during President Biden’s inauguration was down 1%.

Why are UK drivers less distracted?

Our survey results show that UK drivers take road safety more seriously than US drivers. When we asked them what the cultural attitude towards road safety in their country is, there was a big discrepancy: 45% of UK respondents said they take road safety “very seriously,” while only 29% of US drivers do.

UK drivers also get more upset when they see a distracted driver. We asked them how they feel when they see a distracted driver. 41% of UK drivers said they were “very angry.” Only 31% of US drivers felt this way.

These first two questions tell us that there is a cultural break between the US and the UK in terms of how we perceive road safety. UK drivers have a much stronger focus on road safety and respond more aggressively to distracted drivers. Distracted driving in the US doesn’t have the same social stigma as it does in the UK.

Automatic vs. manual transmission

There seems to be a physical difference at play with distracted driving as well between the two countries. 94% of US drivers said they drive an automatic vehicle versus just 33% of UK drivers. Drivers with cars with automatic transmissions have less to do with their hands. Idle hands can search more easily for a phone. 

To understand distracted driving trends, CMT measures the physics of phone movements using the sensors of the phone like the accelerometer and gyroscope. We don’t know if drivers are in an automatic or manual transmission vehicle. In the survey, we asked drivers how many times they typically use their phones while driving per week. 36% of all automatic drivers, both in the US and UK, said they use their phone at least twice a week. Only 21% of manual drivers said the same.

To control for more US drivers using automatic transmission, we also analyzed the breakdown in UK drivers alone. The pattern held. We found that 33% of UK automatic drivers said they used their phone at least twice per week while driving versus 23% for UK manual drivers.

Work pressure

We wanted to understand how work pressure impacts distracted driving in the two countries. We asked drivers how often they receive work-related messages while driving. 33% of US drivers said they get work-related messages at least 2-3 times per week while driving versus 37% of UK drivers. 

US drivers feel more pressure to respond to their boss outside of working hours. 19% of US drivers feel “significant” pressure to respond to their boss outside of work hours versus 11% of UK drivers.

While UK drivers get messages more frequently while driving, and US drivers feel more pressure to respond to their boss outside working hours, both UK and US drivers respond to them at a similar rate: 25% of US drivers respond at least 2-3 times per week versus 24% of UK drivers.

These results suggest that work culture in the US and the UK doesn’t seem to be a critical factor that explains why distracted driving is so much higher in the US.

A roadmap to safety?

At 46 seconds per hour, distracted driving is still high in the UK and requires solutions that combine insurance, technology, enforcement, and government to reduce it. But compared to 2 minutes and 11 seconds per hour in the US, 46 seconds should be a goal for all US drivers. 

The 16-point disparity in road safety attitudes between US and UK drivers should be a call to action. We’ve seen the power that awareness campaigns have for hands-free laws, and how continuous feedback improves driving behaviors. These campaigns are a blueprint for a future where compelling road safety campaigns blend with cutting-edge technology to measure and drive progress. This approach could dramatically alter road safety perceptions in both the US and UK, reduce distracted driving, and diminish the tragedies we see on our roads every day.