CDC: Americans Drive Distracted Waaaay More Than Europeans

Adults aged 18–64 who said they had talked on their cell phone while driving in the past 30 days, by country. Image: CDC

If you’ve been on a U.S. street anytime in the past few years, it comes as no surprise to hear that way too many Americans are yammering away on their cell phones — or worse, OMG’ing and LOL’ing with their friends on text and email — while driving. A new report from the CDC — from their “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” — shows just how bad the American habit is.

Nine-year-old Erica Forney was killed by a distracted driver while riding her bike in 2008. Photo: ##

The CDC looked at 2011 data on distracted driving rates in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States and found that people in the U.S. are by far the worst offenders. Of all the Europeans surveyed, the Portuguese most closely mirrored our dangerous ways.

More than two-thirds (68.7 percent) of U.S. adult drivers (aged 18–64) admitted in surveys to talking on their cell phones while driving at least once in the past 30 days. Almost a third (31.2 percent) admitted to reading or sending texts or e-mails while driving at least once during that time.

Our Portuguese counterparts had the highest rates in Europe for both of these behaviors — 59.4 percent said they’d talked on the phone and 31.3 percent had texted or emailed while driving in the past 30 days. But from there, the rates in Europe plummet. In the UK, just 20.5 percent admitted to talking while driving, and only 15.1 percent of Spaniards say they text and drive.

Adults aged 18–64 who said they had texted or emailed while driving in the past 30 days, by country. Image: CDC

Cell phone ownership rates don’t seem to be a factor in the statistics: The CDC reports that “mobile markets in developed countries are similarly saturated.” However, automobile use does differ: While there were 797 vehicles per 1,000 people in the United States in 2010, there were only 519 in the UK. Meanwhile, the cell-phone-happy Portuguese had 537 cars per 1,000 people.

Cell phone use while driving is an enormous safety problem in this country. NHTSA reports that distraction-related crashes kill more than nine people and injure more than 1,060 every day in the U.S. The effects of distraction are severe: According to U.S. DOT’s website on the issue,, “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.”

Thirty-three U.S. states and the District of Columbia have laws restricting cell phone use while driving, at least for teens, but these laws haven’t yet proven effective at getting people to change their behavior.

  • Daniel Winks

    Phone use while driving should have similar penalties as drunk driving. There’s no excuse for it not to. Even the supposed “hands-free” headsets should be against the law, as it’s been shown they are nearly as distracting as non-hands-free models. This should be treated just like drunk driving. First offense, go to jail, lose license for a year or three. Do it again, 5-7 years, permanent license revocation. Using a distraction-device while driving should not be something that happens, ever. It’s painfully, and often mortally, dangerous and entirely avoidable. There’s absolutely ZERO way that someone could accidentally phone and drive.

  • Joe R.

    This problem could be solved in a heart beat by selectively blocking cell phone signals on the road, except in designated areas where you pull over and stop if you want to use your phone. There’s really little reason people need to use their phones while driving. I don’t even have a cell phone and I get along just fine.

  • Ben

    Or simply revoking the driving license for said amount of time if caught using a device period.

  • Harald

    Hypothesis: at least part of it is a stick shift vs. automatic transmission issue. Using your phone while also having to shift gears is kinda tricky.

  • Laws mean little without enforcement.

  • djc

    Question: are there any policy differences between these countries? I.e., are laws regarding cell phone use and driving any different in the U.K. versus the U.S.?

  • Except that often it is quite useful to have a passenger on the phone with someone else – it’s unfortunate that you can’t block drivers only.

  • guest

    What these short on intelligence lawmakers don’t understand is, it’s not the act of holding the phone but rather the distracted mind in conversation that’s the problem. So hands free or not makes no difference.

  • Joe R.

    A passenger talking to another person on a phone is still a distraction to the driver unless the driver’s compartment is sound-proofed. Seriously, let’s separate wants from needs here. People got along just fine without cell phones until at least the early 1990s. They’re a convenience, not a necessity. And I’m not even saying let’s get rid of cell phones. Let’s just set things up so they only work in areas where cars aren’t moving, or on public transit.

  • Guest

    The Problem of distracted driving in the US is because most vehicles are automatic transmission! This means that your full concentration is not on driving and your hands are more free to do other things. Also without strict law enforcement for distracted driving you won’t stop people texting!


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