By now, many of us have had at least a few conversations around distracted driving or have read about the dangers online and in the news. But even with all the knowledge we have, thousands of drivers continue to allow themselves to be distracted on the road. It’s become such a common occurrence that many of us have become desensitized to the consequences and aren’t holding ourselves accountable. And while Elephant Insurance will always be here for our customers in the event of an accident, we’re also in the business of preventing accidents and keeping you safe. So, let’s break down distracted driving together — what it is, why it’s a problem, and how we can improve.

What is distracted driving?

Distracted driving is exactly what it sounds like — engaging in any activities while driving that take your attention away from the road. And while some distractions may arguably be more serious than others, taking your attention away from the road for any reason dramatically impairs your reaction time. When we think about distracted driving, our minds often jump straight to texting while driving, but there are dozens of ways we regularly distract ourselves on the road.

According to the Virginia DMV, there are three classifications of distracted driving: manual, visual, and cognitive (you’ll probably realize, however, that several distractions fit in multiple categories). Manual distractions are what they sound like — anything that causes you to take your hands off the wheel, like eating or looking for something on the floor. Visual distractions, as you may have guessed, are distractions that take your eyes off the road, such as staring too long at a billboard or rubbernecking.

Last but definitely not least, cognitive distractions take your mind off the road almost fully. This is the category that texting and cell use come under, as well as extensively chatting to passengers and even issuing voice commands to your hands-free device. One study by the University of Utah found that it takes the human brain on average 27 seconds to regain its full attention after “talking” to your hands free device. Cognitive distractions mostly or entirely take your mental focus off the road, which makes them the most dangerous of all the types of distractions.

Why is distracted driving a problem?

What makes cognitive distractions (and all distractions) so dangerous is because true multitasking, i.e. doing two or more activities at the same time, is virtually impossible. The human brain cannot perform two tasks at once with equal focus, it merely switches attention quickly between tasks. So when you’re on your phone behind the wheel, your brain is swapping its focus between driving and chatting, and talking is probably taking precedence.

But what’s the big deal? So we reach for a fry sometimes, or answer that text at a stoplight — no one is getting hurt, right? With this kind of mentality, however, we’re effectively playing Russian roulette with our lives — and the lives of others. When we drive distracted, we are way more likely to miss even the most obvious of changes on the road. Just texting while driving (or manipulating a handheld phone) increases your chances of crashing by 2300%, because it involves all three kinds of distraction.

In 2018 alone, 2,841 people were killed and 400,000 people were injured in crashes caused by distracted driving. And from 2014-2018, the percentage of drivers more likely to manipulate a cell while driving went up 57%, so the problem isn’t going away. So, what can we do?

Teens and distracted driving

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to distracted driving because they are relatively inexperienced drivers when compared to adults. In the US in 2018, nine percent of all teens who died in motor vehicle crashes were killed in crashes that involved distracted driving. In addition to the usual distractions such as cell phone use, teens should limit peer passengers, as two or more peer passengers more than triples the risk of a fatal crash with a teen behind the wheel. Parents can set a good example for their teens by not engaging in distracted driving practices themselves and should talk to their teens about the rules and responsibilities involved when driving a car.

How distracted driving can affect your insurance

In addition to the more serious consequences of distracted driving, it can also have a negative effect on your car insurance. It varies from state to state and also depends on who your insurance provider is, but many have implemented insurance penalties and rate increases when drivers receive tickets for illegal cell phone use — and they’re only getting higher. According to The Zebra, the insurance penalty for distracted driving is up nearly 10,000%. In their study, they go on to say:

“In 2011, a ticket for distracted driving (texting or using your cell phone while driving) would have raised a driver’s car insurance rates by 0.2%, costing them less than $3 per year in added premium. Now, the same violation will raise rates 19.7% (about $290) — a penalty increase of 9,750%.”

Some insurance companies have illegal cell phone use labeled as a non-chargeable offense, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways it could impact your insurance. If you cause an accident due to illegal cell use, otherwise known as an at-fault accident, your insurance rate will almost always go up. And whether or not it seems fair, if you’re in an accident where the other party was driving distracted and caused it (i.e. a not-at-fault accident), your rate may go up anyway (though usually much less).

“Be advised, each situation is unique — it’s not possible to say exactly how the situation will impact a driver’s insurance rate in advance. Insurance is not so cut-and-dry that way,” says an underwriting specialist at Elephant. He says there are multiple factors to consider every time a claim is filed (like accident history), so the impact on your premium for being involved in a distracted driving accident could be huge — or less severe, depending on your specific circumstances.

Ending distracted driving

While you can technically receive a citation for any kind of distracted driving, the country has been focusing much of its distracted driving laws specifically on cell use and driving. Most of the country has made texting while driving illegal and punishable by law.

In fact, many states feel that only banning texting doesn’t go far enough. Several have already implemented a ban on hand-held devices altogether (which means picking up your phone for any reason) and bumped up the crime to a primary offense. One of the few exceptions in these states is when making an emergency phone call. In fact, Elephant’s home state of Virginia became one of the many states to implement a hand-held ban that went into effect January 1st, 2021. Virginia residents can now be pulled over for using a hand-held phone. It may seem like a harsh law, but experts predict it will save countless lives.

Tips to stay focused on the road

There are also steps you can take on a personal level to keep you and others safe on the road. Here are some distracted driving safety tips:

  • When in doubt, pull over. This is always the safest choice if something can’t wait. However, don’t linger on the side of the road if it’s a longer stop. Get off the highway and find a parking lot you can use.
  • Off. Your. Phone. We can’t stress this enough. Keep it out of your hand, even more so if it’s illegal in your state. Text messages and notifications can wait, and if it’s more urgent, only opt for hands-free calling. Newer cars even have technology to read your texts to you!
  • Keep your cool. Tension and stress can lead to badly timed reactions and unconscious distraction. Lessen anxiety by taking time to notice if you’re tensing your muscles or feeling stressed. Take deep breaths periodically to reduce tension.
  • Be prepared. The less you have to think about while driving, the better! Eat, get a good night’s rest, choose radio presets, adjust your mirror and seat, and enter your destination into the GPS all before hitting the road.
  • Utilize an organization. If you struggle to hold yourself accountable, making a pledge not to text and drive with an organization like National Safety Council or learning from our partner Project Yellow Light can help keep you focused on the road.

Distracted driving FAQs

What are the cell phone and driving laws in my state?

Visit to find your state’s most recent rules on phone use in the car. They’ll also tell you whether or not their laws are primary or secondary enforcements.

What is primary enforcement?

In regard to distracted driving, primary enforcement means law enforcement can pull you over for that reason alone.

What is secondary enforcement?

This means that you can be penalized for using your hand-held phone, but the police officer must first witness another infraction (like running a stop sign).

If my state has banned handheld phone use, can I still make a phone call while driving?

Yep, as long as that call is made using a hands-free device.

If my state has banned handheld phone use, can I just hold my phone while driving?

Nope! Even just holding your phone in your hand is illegal in your state.

What about if I need to input directions into the GPS on my phone, does that count?

Yep, that counts. Pull over if you need your phone for directions!

Can I be pulled over for using my phone?

Yes. As mentioned before, in states with a handheld ban with primary enforcement, like Virginia, a police officer can pull you over for using a handheld phone.

Can I text at a stop light?

Nope, not legally. A good rule of thumb is that if the engine is turned on, you’re now considered a vehicle “in motion”, which makes texting at a stop light illegal.

What if I’m driving outside my home state or city and their laws are different? Can I still get a ticket?

Yes, absolutely. As far as law enforcement is concerned, it is your responsibility to know their local rules of the road. When in doubt, play it safe and keep your phone out of your hand!

Can a police officer search my phone or impound it if they suspect me of using my phone while driving?

No, not without your permission or a warrant.

Take initiative today.

Preventing distracted driving is in all of our hands. As we mentioned, at Elephant we’re here to help prevent accidents. However, if you find yourself the cause or victim of a distracted driving accident, we will do everything we can to help. Learn more about filing a claim, get the process started, or get a quote with us today to become a protected member of the Herd.


This article is intended for informational purposes only. It does not replace or modify the information contained in your insurance policy.

Article last updated on June 25th, 2023 at 7:11 pm

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