Since the 1980s, drunk driving has been the focus of many public safety policies. During the 80s, the federal government began tracking the number of drunk drivers who cause crashes and fatalities.
At the same time, popular media began depicting the dangers of impaired driving and schools started integrating impaired driving awareness into their curricula. Students don’t even generally need to take driver’s education to learn about impaired driving, as there may be special presentations on the issue that the whole school must attend or even information on drunk driving risks in health courses or classes that aim to prepare students for adult responsibilities.
In recent years, however, much of that attention has pivoted to distracted driving. Specifically, people worry about the use of mobile phones and other digital technology while driving. Has distracted driving truly become a more dangerous safety concern than drunk driving?
There is a major gap between drunk and distracted driving deaths
While both drunk and distracted driving can cause completely preventable crashes, one is responsible for far more deaths than the other. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drunk and distracted driving claim thousands of lives every year.
In 2019, the most recent year with a federal analysis available, 10,142 people died in drunk driving crashes. Although those numbers represent the lowest total since the NHTSA began tracking these deaths, that still means that 28 people die daily due to drunk driving. The NHTSA reports another 3,142 people died in distracted driving crashes in 2019, making it clear that drunk driving is responsible for far more deaths every year.
There are probably more distracted driving crashes than reported
There are many factors that influence the accuracy is such a comparison and in the process of collecting data related to the cause of a crash. For example, chemical tests can conclusively show chemical impairment in a driver, but not all forms of distraction leave a verifiable trail of evidence after a crash.
Someone’s phone use may not have involved apps or texting, so there is no digital record. Distracted driving can also involve daydreaming or arguing with a passenger, activities drivers aren’t likely to confess to right after a crash. There are probably more distracted driving deaths than the NHTSA can report, but there is no denying that drunk driving causes far more deaths than distracted driving.
Those suffering the consequences of a crash caused by impairment or distraction often have the same legal rights, as both drunk and distracted driving open a driver up to personal liability.