Distracted Driving Skyrockets by 30%

This will not be fixed by more regulation or enforcement; it's a design problem.

Image of a person holding their phone behind the wheel of a car.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

It's been carnage lately on the roads where I live in southern Ontario. Just this month, two pedestrians were killed in Toronto while crossing the street with the right of way, hit by a driver with a revoked license because he was too sick to drive.

Just down the road in Hamilton, Ontario, a beloved conductor was the victim of a hit-and-run driver going the wrong way on a one-way street because almost all of the city is made of one-way streets designed for the convenience of drivers—these streets are clearly not convenient enough for some.

Although these deaths do not appear to be related to distracted driving, many others are. And, according to a new report from Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT), distracted driving is seriously on the rise.

CMT gathered "sensor data from millions of IoT devices — including smartphones, proprietary Tags, connected vehicles, dashcams, and third-party devices — and fuses them together with contextual data to create a unified view of vehicle and driver behavior." They know what people are doing behind the wheel.  

Graphic showing speeding data before and during the pandemic

Cambridge Mobile Telematics

In the 2021 report, the problem was speeding. The roads were empty thanks to the pandemic, and the roads are designed for speed, so people do it when they can, often without even noticing it. By 2022, the speeding has dropped as the roads became more crowded again.

increase in distracted driving

Cambridge Mobile Telematics

Phone distraction was up in 2021, but the new study shows it has skyrocketed, with a 30.3% increase compared to pre-pandemic February 2020. CMT is not sure why.

"The increase in phone distraction is curious. Unlike speeding, it doesn’t appear to be related to traffic. When total driving fell in the first half of 2020, speeding spiked along with distracted driving. As traffic returned to normal, speeding somewhat normalized. This pattern has not held for distracted driving."

Distracted driving has usually been seasonal, increasing in summer. That no longer seems to be happening. It is also spiking at night, when it is even more critical that drivers keep their eyes on the road. What can be done about this?

"Over the past two years, distracted driving has been like a pandemic within a pandemic, increasing at alarming rates and changing drivers’ behaviors as the pandemic wears on. As more drivers hit the nation’s roads, this intensified distraction will put even more people at risk,” said Ryan McMahon, vice president of strategy at CMT, in a press release. “As we start Distracted Driving Awareness Month this April, we hope this report reminds everyone that distraction hasn’t gone away with the pandemic — it’s actually worse than ever. The bright spot is that we know that technology and regulations can significantly reduce distraction. The key is that the market needs to bring these solutions to scale and lawmakers need to pass stronger, enforceable hands-free legislation.”

The problem is many jurisdictions already have strong, enforceable, hands-free legislation but it doesn't apparently make much of a difference.

As Smart Growth America keeps telling us, enforcement doesn't work very well.

"Our current approach to addressing these deaths needs to be reconsidered or dropped altogether—it is not working. Many states and localities have spent the last ten years focusing on enforcement, running ineffectual education campaigns, or blaming the victims of these crashes, while often ignoring the role of roadway design in these deaths. Meanwhile, the death count has continued to climb year after year. States and localities cannot simply deploy the same playbook and expect this trend to change—they need a fundamentally different approach to the problem. They need to acknowledge that their approach to building and operating streets and roads is contributing to these deaths." 

Or as we keep saying, it is all about design.

Back in Toronto, we see that almost all of the serious collisions happen in the suburbs, where the roads are wide, the cars can speed, and the drivers are comfortable looking at their phones in those wide, straight traffic lanes. Urban planner Ken Greenberg tells The Star the fix is to redesign the roads since "there’s enough space to undertake those redesign changes in the suburbs, unlike downtown, where it may be difficult to squeeze in something as simple as a new bike lane." Redesigning also provides opportunity to make sustainability driven design changes like bike lanes that empower people to opt for other modes of transport aside from cars.
Safer streets from Smart Growth America

Smart Growth America

Greenberg said there is enough room to fix this problem and Smart Growth America shows us how. The "drivists" won't like it, but it is hard to speed when the lanes are narrower. It is harder to be distracted when you really have to keep your eyes on the road. It is harder to zip around corners and squish 5-year-olds when the corners are designed with bump-outs to reduce speed and the length of the crosswalk.

There is a fundamental truth: If you design roads so that people can drive fast, they will drive fast. If it is boring looking at the road because it is long, wide, and straight, they will look at their phones. And if you design roads for everyone instead of just drivers, then everyone, including drivers, will be a lot safer.

View Article Sources
  1. "The 2022 US Distracted Driving Report." Cambridge Mobile Telematics, 2022.

  2. "Measuring and Pricing Phone Distraction Risk." Cambridge Mobile Telematics, 2021.