- What is Distracted Driving, and Why Is It Worse at Night?
- The Consequences of Distracted Driving
- Safety Tips for Distraction-Less Driving at Night
- What’s Next?
- Further Reading
Be honest: Have you ever read or answered a text while driving?
If so, you’re not alone. A 2016 survey from State Farm found 94% of drivers said they thought texting was a distracting behavior behind the wheel, but 35% still did it anyway.
There has been a litany of PSAs – ranging from heartwarmingly silly to shockingly violent – on the dangers of texting while driving (and other behaviors), but it bears repeating that in 2018, an estimated 2,841 people in the U.S. died in distraction-affected crashes, according to the National Safety Council. The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among teen drivers, too. They’re three times more likely to be involved in an accident than drivers aged 20 and older.
The effects are even worse at night. Fatal accidents are three times more likely to happen at night than in the daytime, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Even though there may be fewer cars on the road, nighttime driving still presents a big risk to yourself, other drivers, and pedestrians, since there is lower visibility of the road. Combine that with other risk factors, like animals crossing the road, vehicle dome lights obscuring your vision, and the greater possibility of drivers under the influence, and you’ll see why it’s especially important to keep your eyes on the road.
We spoke to four experts about what distracted driving is and how it’s changed over time, what the personal and legal consequences are, and how you can become a safer driver at night.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there are three types of distraction: visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel), and cognitive (taking your mind off driving).
By this definition, distracted driving can encompass a lot of behaviors, and indeed, it has been a problem since the automobile was first invented. For example, in the early 1900s, drivers were concerned that the invention of the windshield wiper could be a potential distraction on the road.
But the actions that comprise distracted driving have changed over the years and become a lot more sophisticated. Cellphones, unsurprisingly, are one of the worst contributors. Texting is particularly egregious in cars, as it’s a visual, manual, and cognitive distraction. According to the NHTSA, driving 55 mph and taking your eyes off the road for 5 seconds (the amount of time it takes to read or send a text) is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.
But another culprit you may not have thought of is your own car, says Alex Epstein, director of transportation safety at the National Safety Council.
“Vehicles themselves now have infotainment systems and other technologies that can pull one’s attention away from the task of driving,” Epstein says. “Apps that encourage drivers to use a device while driving for GPS routing, ordering food, finding parking or other tasks are unsafe [as well].”
These risk factors compound when the sun has set. “When driving in the dark, one’s depth perception, color recognition and peripheral vision can be compromised,” Epstein explains.
The context is also different at night. For example, you may be more fatigued driving at night after work — and therefore less responsive to dangers on the road. Driving at dusk also means you’re more likely to be on the road with people who may be intoxicated or animals crossing the road.
Distracted driving can include, but isn’t limited to:
- Talking and texting on your phone
- Having conversations with other passengers
- Eating and drinking
- Making changes to your car’s entertainment system, climate controls, or GPS
- Driving while tired or drowsy
- Driving with pets in the car
The laws governing distracted driving will vary by state. No state has a law that completely bans all electronic use in the car, Epstein says, but most states have enacted some penalties – whether in the form of fines, points on your license, license suspension, or even jail time.
“New York bans handheld cellphone use and texting for all drivers with primary enforcement, whereas Montana has no laws restricting the use of cellphones while driving,” Epstein explains. Here is a breakdown of distracted driving laws by state from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
It’s also important to consider that a distracted driving offense can have ripple effects on your life. For example, if you’re ticketed for distracted driving in a company vehicle or on company business (such as driving for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft), you could lose your job.
“Many employers do not allow their employees to use their phones while driving on company business because employers could be held legally accountable for their employee’s negligent acts during employment,” says Rick Chen, director of communications at Metromile.
You can also run the risk of paying higher car insurance premiums. In our comprehensive study of millennial car insurance rates this year, we found people age 23-38 saw a 24% increase on their premiums after distracted driving offense. The damage can be worse if you are uninsured.
“When a driver texts, they are liable, and not upholding their legal ‘duty of care’ to take action to avoid harming others,” explains Matt Desmond, principal agent of Desmond-Integra Insurance in Austin, Texas. “So, if the damage one causes exceeds their property damage or liability limits carried and the accident is caused by texting and driving, lawyers can get involved and the individual could be sued for compensatory damages sustained by the third party.”
Lastly, an accident caused by distracted driving could cause severe harm to others around you.
“Distracted driving can have life-altering effects within seconds of taking your eyes off the road for you, your passengers, and people in other vehicles,” says John Espenschied, owner of the Chesterfield, Missouri-based Insurance Brokers Group.
Before you start driving, take inventory of your immediate surroundings. Are your side mirrors, rearview mirrors, and seat correctly adjusted? Do you have your seatbelt on? Is the temperature ideal? Are the interior dome lights of the car turned off? Make sure to settle all these things before you pull out of the garage or parking lot. Set your GPS and music ahead of time, and don’t fiddle with them behind the wheel.
Then, turn off your phone or put it on silent, then keep it out of sight. “Store it in the glove compartment, a purse or even the trunk if the temptation is too great,” Epstein says. If you need to answer a phone call or send a text, then designate a passenger to handle it or pull over and park in a safe place before doing so.
You can’t make the night turn into day, but you can make your car a safer space. Wipe off your windshield to remove streaks, keep interior lights turned off so your eyesight can adjust to the darkness, and make sure your headlights and taillights are working correctly. On that last note, you may want to get your headlights checked by a repair facility or car dealer to ensure they’re angled correctly. Headlights pointed too downward can make you lose out on the light you need.
Exercise caution when driving at night, as people are harder to see in the dark. This means driving slower and being more defensive than you usually might, because you never know if a deer may run out in front of your car or if a drunk driver may swerve into your lane. Using high-beam headlights helps if you’re in a rural area or a place with no oncoming cars, but dim them if you see a vehicle coming, as that could blind them and cause them to get into an accident as well.
If you thought you were in the clear for having a phone call over speaker or telling Siri to accomplish a task, think again. “Remember that using hands-free and in-car technology is still distracted driving,” Chen says. “You can miss audio and visual cues when you are on a call or tapping on the center console.”
This advice may seem counterintuitive to what we’ve advised so far (keeping your phone in the glove compartment of your car), but it doesn’t hurt to pre-empt yourself over future distracted driving behaviors. There are a number of apps on the market that will limit notifications on your phone or disable your phone entirely if it detects that you’re driving. Here are some popular options we found:
- AT&T DriveMode: Silences alerts and phone calls and send auto-reply text messages; turns on when the vehicle is moving at 15 mph
- LifeSaver: Blocks phone use while driving and offers rewards (such as iTunes gift cards) for good driving
- DriveSmart: Monitors your driving habits (i.e., speed, acceleration, braking, turns) and offers advice to improve your habits
If you find that you’re drifting off while driving, pull over to a safe area. It is not safe to drive while drowsy, and trying to get home faster is not an adequate solution when you can’t keep your eyes open.
You can also use technology to curb your distractions. Desmond suggests using telematics programs, or usage-based insurance plans, as “built-in accountability.” These programs involve installing a device on your car or an app on your phone that will report how you use your car back to the insurance company. From there, you receive real-time evaluations of how you drive – how fast you accelerate and break, driving speed, miles driven – and personalized tips to help you improve. If you’re deemed a good driver, you can receive a discount on your car insurance.
“Some don’t like the idea of participating in these programs offered by carriers, due to privacy concerns, but many clients have said it keeps them from their normal habits. They are more aware of bad habits on a daily basis and want to get the best rates possible,” Desmond says.
Keep in mind the ultimate goal, which is to ensure safety for yourself and those around you. Thousands of people die every year from preventable accidents, and it only takes a second to change your life.
As Espenschied said succinctly: “arrive alive and leave the distractions to the passengers.”
We compiled a list of driving tips for yourself or another driver. Stick it on the fridge or in the glove compartment of your teen driver’s car. Safety first!