Distracted driving: the dangerous habit we can't ignore

April 12, 2023 by PEMCO Insurance

GettyImages-1126248393.jpgThe next time you’re tempted to sneak a peek at a text while you’re driving, consider this from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC): Distracted driving causes 23% of serious crashes in the Evergreen State. Sadly, that number jumps to 30% for fatal accidents.  

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. It’s a great time to learn more about the dangers of distracted driving (it’s not just your phone!) and practical things drivers can do to stay safer and keep the costs of distracted driving from hitting them in the wallet.  

Is distracted driving getting worse? 

Before COVID complicated traffic data collection (along with so much of life!), accident trends were showing the PNW was making headway on distracted driving, at least the use of handheld devices. The improvement dovetailed with stiffer distracted driving (sometimes called “e-DUI”) laws in Washington and Oregon that took effect in 2017.  

In a 2018 PEMCO Poll, nearly two-thirds of Northwesterners said that, following the change in laws, they’re at least somewhat more cautious about using the phone when driving. And about one-fourth said they’re much less likely to drive distracted. 

Data from the WTSC seems to bear out those good intentions, with a 21% drop in three years among traffic fatalities attributable to distracted driving. In 2016, before tightened e-DUI laws, 155 people died on Washington roads in crashes attributed to distraction. By 2019, the number was down to 122. (In 2020, that number had dropped to 93, but with pandemic-disrupted driving patterns, it’s hard to know how lasting that drop might be, and the agency hasn’t released comparable current data.)  

Its most recent observational studies from 2021 show that instances of distracted driving (not necessarily those that resulted in accidents) hovered at pre-pandemic levels, around 7%. 

What is considered distracted driving? 

Distracted driving is any activity that takes a driver’s attention away from the road (although laws focus primarily on handheld devices), including these things you might not think about: 

  • Talking to passengers. The distraction of chatty passengers is even worse for teens than adults, resulting in a sixfold increase in evasive maneuvers needed to avoid a crash (see more in this now-classic dash-cam study). 

  • Reaching for an object. 

  • Glancing too long at something outside the car, whether it’s scenery or looking at an accident. 

  • Mental drifting, which can include being so deep in thought that you’re not focused on the road or singing too passionately to a favorite song. 

Drivers aren’t the only people who struggle with distraction. Pedestrians using earbuds or looking at their phones also put themselves at risk when they’re unable to hear or see oncoming traffic.  

What are the consequences of distracted driving? 

Distraction ranks among the top-three risk factors for accidents (right along with impairment and risky behavior like speeding), according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences (here’s PEMCO’s take). When drivers are distracted, their reaction times are slower, meaning they’re less able to respond to sudden changes on the road. And it’s not just a little. WTSC reports it takes a driver 27 seconds to refocus on the road after using a cell phone. In that amount of time, you can drive the length of three football fields in a car that’s moving at just 25 mph! 

Serious legal and financial consequences are possible in any accident, and it’s why you need enough insurance coverage. But even an e-DUI citation without a crash comes with significant financial penalties.* In Washington, a first-offense ticket for using a handheld device while driving will cost at least $136, according to the Washington State Patrol. A second offense will cost at least $234. You also can get a $99 ticket for other distractions like eating if it interferes with safe driving and you’re pulled over for another offense. 

Oregon takes a slightly different approach. Drivers may pay nothing for a first offense if they take an approved Distracted Driving Avoidance course, according to However, a first offense that doesn’t contribute to a crash is still a Class B violation, meaning it can have a maximum fine of $1,000. A second offense or a first offense that contributes to a crash jumps to a Class A violation, punishable with a maximum $2,000 fine. Strike three within 10 years is a Class B misdemeanor, with a maximum fine of $2,500 or six months in jail. 

In Washington and Oregon (even when the fine is suspended because the driver takes the class), e-DUIs appear on drivers’ records, which insurance companies can view.  

PEMCO takes distracted driving seriously. When a driver’s record shows a distracted driving citation, their insurance premium can reflect the increased risk.  

“We consider our policyholders’ driving histories along with other details specific to them,” said PEMCO’s Vice President of Product and Underwriting, Dawn Lee, “so it’s difficult to pinpoint an ‘average’ amount a distracted driving ticket can add to a policyholder’s premium. 

“However, I can say, one of the best things anyone can do to help minimize their insurance costs – whether they’re with PEMCO or another insurer – is to keep their driving records clean. Tickets can linger for multiple renewal periods and impact premium for years to come.”  

Avoiding distracted driving

Preventing distracted driving comes down to consciously choosing attentiveness as your No. 1 priority behind the wheel. Here are our top 10 suggestions to help you keep your eyes and mind on the road: 

  1. Turn on your smartphone’s driving mode or “Do Not Disturb” feature. In its latest snapshot of drivers from February 2022, Cambridge Mobile Telematics (the company that powers PEMCODOMETER™), notes that drivers nationwide spend an average of one minute, 38 seconds on their phones during each hour of driving! 

  1. If your phone lacks those features, put it away and wait until you reach your destination to use it. 

  1. Don’t use infotainment touch screens and GPS navigation when you’re moving. If you need to set a new destination, wait until you can stop in a parking lot. Also, select your music for the trip before you leave. 

  1. If you’re driving an unfamiliar car (like a rental), take time to learn controls like adjusting the heat and turning on wipers before leaving the lot. 

  1. Always use your vehicle’s advanced safety features, such as lane departure warnings and automatic emergency braking, if available, since they can help you avoid a crash if you do become distracted. 

  1. Don’t eat, drink, or engage in other activities (yes, I-5 shaver, we’re looking at you!) that take your attention away from the road. 

  1. Keep a calm environment inside the car – no heated conversations, agitating podcasts, horseplay, or unrestrained pets. 

  1. Leave with plenty of time to spare. Stress, like rushing to get somewhere on time, is a distractor, too. 

  1. Set a good example for teens by staying focused on the road and avoiding distractions. 

  1. If you’re a passenger and you notice the driver is distracted, gently redirect their attention back to the road. 

PEMCO prioritizes your safety 

Sharing timely, carefully sourced information from trusted safety organizations is an important part of PEMCO’s worry less, live more commitment to PNW drivers. To learn more, check out our auto safety collection, and please let us know in “Comments” about topics that interest you. 

* NOTE: While we’re experts in loss prevention and auto/home safety, we don’t consider ourselves experts in traffic laws or their enforcement. Information shared here is for educational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you have legal concerns, we urge you to contact a law enforcement source or attorney in your community. 



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