Study: Drivers With Smart Phones Use Them Almost Every Time They Drive

Almost everyone with a smart phone uses it while driving, according to new research from Zendrive. Photo: Vivian Nguyen/Flickr
Almost everyone with a smart phone uses it while driving, according to new research from Zendrive. Photo: Vivian Nguyen/Flickr

New research monitoring cell phone use while driving suggests the scale of motorist distraction is off the charts.

Motorists with smart phones use hand-held devices in 88 out of every 100 trips, according to data collected by Zendrive, a company that assesses driving behavior using the sensors in smart phones. More than three quarters of drivers — 77 percent — have smart phones. Extrapolating to the entire population, Zendrive estimates there are about 600 million trips involving distracted driving in the U.S. each day.

Nationwide, traffic deaths have risen at an alarming rate in recent years, and cell phone use is often cited as a potential culprit, but data is limited. Federal agencies including the CDC and the NHTSA have estimated that distracted driving is a factor in about one in 10 traffic deaths annually. But the research from Zendrive indicates the extent of the problem may be much larger.

The dataset was collected over 90 days from 10 billion miles driven by 5 million motorists with Zendrive’s tech running on their devices, including both professional drivers and non-professionals.

Prior research has determined that taking your eyes off the road for as little as two seconds can make a collision four to 24 times more likely. The Zendrive data suggests drivers often engage in several distracting incidents in a single trip. During an average one-hour trip, drivers spent 3.5 minutes using their phones. (Zendrive counted only “digital manipulation” of phones, not hands-free use, though the company acknowledges that hands-free use also impairs cognition while driving.)

Oregon was the least distracted state and Vermont was the most. In Vermont, drivers spent an average of 7.5 percent of driving time texting or using apps on their phones. In Oregon, it was about 3.5 percent.

Some federal safety regulators have pushed for safeguards that allow drivers to voluntarily disable certain smartphone functions while behind the wheel, but the consumer electronics industry has pushed back.

State laws banning the use of hand-held phones while driving may have an effect. There are 16 states with such bans in effect, and six of those states are among the 10 least-distracted in Zendrive’s dataset. However, Vermont, the most distracted state, also has a cell phone ban.

Vermont was the most distracted state. Oregon was the least. Map: Zendrive
Vermont was the most distracted state, Oregon was the least. Map: Zendrive
  • HamTech87

    Drivers think checking their device is fine when stopped at a red light. It is not. This woman died because a distracted driver didn’t see the woman who fell in the crosswalk. When the light turned red, he stepped on the gas.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Yeah, aside from murder which obviously I don’t endorse, it’s also super irritating when drivers are staring at SnapFace and don’t notice when the signal changed. I don’t know what is wrong with people who feel like they can’t survive 15 seconds without picking up their phone.

  • thielges

    My guess is that there’s a Pavlovian response to the blings and dings of audible notifications. “Gotta respond to that latest post before someone else beats me to it”. Everyone else is doing it, so why not? There’s almost an expectation of an immediate response. A social responsibility.

    Decades ago drunk driving was quasi-tolerated. Everyone was doing it so why not? It took a massive effort to turn public opinion around. Fines and penalties were escalated from “pour out the drunk’s bottle and let him off with a warning” to tens of thousands of dollars fines and eventual criminal convictions with jail time. Something similar is probably needed to curb distracted driving but there’s currently no equivalent of a field sobriety test that police departments can employ. Phone vendors could include snitchware into their OSes to allow officers to know whether a phone was recently in use. Done right such snitchware could provide the info required for enforcement without impacting privacy.

  • Zharol

    Apparently acknowledging the notifications releases dopamine. Same pleasure sensation as from drugs/alcohol/etc.

  • Frank Kotter

    THIS! Motorists on devices at reds have an instinct to hit the gas when they realize they are sitting at a green before they ever look around. So dangerous.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There is another fact that isn’t being discussed. I have a niece and nephew ages 17 and 19 who live in another state. Each has been in a severe wreck caused by someone high on opiods going over the center line. One might have been killed if she hadn’t swerved at the last minute. The other driver was taken directly to jail.

    Just remember there are only three states in the country where the life expectancy of non-Hispanic Whites is not falling due to “deaths of despair” — suicide, overdose, alcohol related liver damage. New York, New Jersey, and California.

    That’s what we are facing on the road now. And in our society.

    The good news is that Hispanics are living longer, longer than the average White. Why? Well, if you see someone doing physical work these days, they are probably Latino, and they have had less family decline. So ride your bike.

  • AndreL

    It is unacceptable to suggest this sort of intrusive monitoring in what has become the primary repository of personal data. Imagine how easy would it be for any police investigation to “gather data” by arranging whatever pretext to stop someone driving and check her or his phone in the process.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is an example.

    These folks are on the road, uninsured, in barely functioning cars in older suburbs all over America.

  • thielges

    You missed the last sentence of my post. For example there could simply be an icon visible on the lock screen that indicates “phone used within the last five minutes”. One binary indicator hardly reveals any other info on the phone.

  • c2check

    If it’s only telling the cops if a phone/app was in use, that isn’t troubling to me. I’d even like to make car black box data more readily available for crash investigations—it would be useful to have data about things like speeding, swerving, and abrupt braking in order to really investigate why and when crashes occur.
    This wouldn’t help for things like using a car radio/GPS, though, and I could imagine there are “safe” instances when one might be “using” their phone, such as changing music, that might even be done hands-free. It would have to distinguish how the phone was being used.

  • dat

    Can we please get back to talking about how some people on bicycles don’t always come to a full stop at stop signs? That’s the real problem.

  • Jason

    How much of the usage is attributable to having a turn-by-turn navigation app running?

  • The article discusses, this, they only include manipulation of the device, not hands free operation.


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