The Worst States for Distracted Driving

From 2015 to 2017, more than 1,400 fatalities were attributed to car crashes involving drivers that were distracted by their cellphones. Some states account for a disproportionate number of these fatalities. Our study found that Tennessee, Delaware, Wyoming, Texas and Montana—the five worst states for distracted driving—were responsible for 31% of all distracted driving deaths for this time period.

States with the strictest distracted driving regulations typically had the lowest number of these types of deaths. In the 13 states—along with the District of Columbia—that have strict laws regarding handheld phone use, cellphone use for novice drivers and texting, there were 25% fewer distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles compared to the national average.

Heat map of the states with the highest rate of distracted driving fatalities per 10 billion vehicle miles

1. Tennessee

7.20 distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles

Our study found that Tennessee had the highest rate of distracted driving fatalities, nearly five times the national average of 1.49 fatalities per 10 billion vehicle miles. Tennessee's laws regarding cellphones and driving are fairly strict—however, they do not ban the handheld use of cellphones for all drivers.

Tennessee Distracted Driving Laws

Type of regulationTennessee distracted driving restrictionsEnforcement
Handheld banOnly applies in school zones while lights are flashingPrimary
All cellphone ban for novice driversApplies to drivers with learner's or intermediate licensesPrimary
Texting banApplies to all driversPrimary

2. Delaware

3.28 distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles

Despite having some of the strictest regulations for cellphones and driving, Delaware has the second highest distracted driving fatality rate. At 3.28 distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles, its rate is nearly 350% greater than that of nearby Maryland. Delaware is the only state with all three primary bans to rank as one of the five worst states for distracted driving fatalities.

In addition to being a safety issue, a high frequency of serious distracted driving accidents can also affect insurance rates. Delaware is known as having one of the highest average costs of auto insurance in the nation—its rates are 35% greater than the national average—with crashes due to cellphone use being a possible contributor to these high premiums.

Delaware Distracted Driving Laws

Type of regulationDelaware distracted driving restrictionsEnforcement
Handheld banApplies to all driversPrimary
All cellphone ban for novice driversApplies to drivers with learner's or intermediate licensesPrimary
Texting banApplies to all driversPrimary

3. Wyoming

3.22 distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles

Wyoming's nine deaths within the last three years were enough to make it rank third among all states for distracted driving fatalities. This state also has some of the most lax laws regarding driving and cellphone use. Wyoming has no restrictions on handheld cellphone use or bans for inexperienced or young drivers—who are considered to be among the most at-risk populations of drivers to get in a car accident.

Wyoming Distracted Driving Laws

Type of regulationWyoming distracted driving restrictionsEnforcement
Handheld banNoneNA
All cellphone ban for novice driversNoneNA
Texting banApplies to all driversPrimary

4. Texas

3.00 distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles

The Lone Star State recorded 244 distracted driving fatalities, which is the most out of any state for the time period we considered. It is also among the eight states that rank as one of the 10 worst for distracted driving that do not ban the handheld use of cellphones.

Texting and driving is considered a primary offense in Texas—meaning a police officer can pull you over specifically for doing so—and is punishable with a fine of $99 for first-time offenders and $200 for subsequent violations.

Texas Distracted Driving Laws

Type of regulationTexas distracted driving restrictionsEnforcement
Handheld banNoneNA
All cellphone ban for novice driversApplies to drivers under 18 years oldPrimary
Texting banApplies to all driversPrimary

5. Montana

2.91 distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles

Montana is the only state in the U.S. that doesn't currently have any statewide laws that aim to restrict the use of cellphones while driving. However, several cities—including Billings, Bozeman and Great Falls—have passed ordinances aimed at addressing this issue. Montana's annual distracted driving fatality rate is 6% greater than nearby North Dakota's rate of 2.74.

Montana Distracted Driving Laws

Type of regulationMontana distracted driving restrictionsEnforcement
Handheld banNoneNA
All cellphone ban for novice driversNoneNA
Texting banNoneNA


Do Distracted Driving Laws Reduce Fatalities?

We found that states with the strictest limitations on distracted driving typically had lower rates of distracted driving fatalities. Our research showed that in the 13 states (in addition to the District of Columbia) with the most far-reaching bans on cellphone use for drivers, the distracted driving fatality rate was nearly 30% lower than it was in states with more lax regulations. The following 13 states and Washington, D.C., completely ban handheld cellphone use, texting and all cellphone use for novice drivers.

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

Our study revealed that complete bans on handheld cellphone use, on average, had a particularly strong correlation with fewer distracted driving deaths. In the 16 states and the District of Columbia, which completely ban handheld devices while driving, the distracted driving fatality rate was 44% lower than in states with no legislation or partial bans on using handheld devices while driving.

Graph showing that states that ban handheld cellphone use have a lower rate of distracted driving fatalities

Distracted Driving Deaths: States Ranked

Rank

State/districtHandheld banComplete ban for novice driversTexting banDistracted driving fatalities rate*
1TennesseeNo ban**Complete banComplete ban7.20
2DelawareComplete banComplete banComplete ban3.28
3WyomingNo banNo banComplete ban3.22
4TexasNo banComplete banComplete ban3.00
5MontanaNo banNo banNo ban2.91
6North DakotaNo banComplete banComplete ban2.74
7ColoradoNo banComplete banComplete ban2.62
8IowaNo banComplete banComplete ban2.60
9MaineNo banComplete banComplete ban2.25
10IllinoisComplete banComplete banComplete ban2.17
11South DakotaNo banPartial banPartial ban2.10
12ArizonaNo banNo banPartial ban1.98
13AlabamaNo banComplete banComplete ban1.97
14AlaskaNo banNo banComplete ban1.90
15LouisianaPartial banComplete banComplete ban1.76
16KentuckyNo banComplete banComplete ban1.76
17KansasNo banComplete banComplete ban1.66
18New HampshireComplete banComplete banComplete ban1.48
19VirginiaNo banPartial banComplete ban1.46
20MissouriNo banNo banPartial ban1.44
21MichiganNo banComplete banComplete ban1.41
22ArkansasPartial banPartial banComplete ban1.40
23UtahNo banComplete banComplete ban1.38
24IdahoNo banNo banComplete ban1.36
25PennsylvaniaNo banNo banComplete ban1.28
26OhioNo banComplete banPartial ban1.26
27HawaiiComplete banComplete banComplete ban1.25
28New MexicoNo banComplete banComplete ban1.20
29OklahomaPartial banNo banComplete ban1.16
30WisconsinNo banComplete banComplete ban1.15
31IndianaNo banComplete banComplete ban1.08
32GeorgiaComplete banComplete banComplete ban1.06
33CaliforniaComplete banPartial banComplete ban1.03
34North CarolinaNo banComplete banComplete ban0.97
35MinnesotaNo BanComplete banComplete ban0.96
36WashingtonComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.93
37VermontComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.90
38FloridaNo banNo banPartial ban0.90
39MarylandComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.73
40New JerseyComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.65
41OregonComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.64
42ConnecticutComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.53
43West VirginiaComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.51
44South CarolinaNo banNo banComplete ban0.49
45MassachusettsNo banComplete banComplete ban0.49
46MississippiNo banNo banComplete ban0.33
47New YorkComplete banNo banComplete ban0.33
48NebraskaNo banPartial banPartial ban0.32
49NevadaComplete banNo banComplete ban0.25
50 (tie)Rhode IslandComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.00
50 (tie)District of ColumbiaComplete banComplete banComplete ban0.00
* The distracted driving fatalities rate represents the average annual recorded deaths attributed to cellphone related distracted driving accidents per 10 billion vehicle miles in the state.
** Tennessee does ban the handheld use of cell phones in school zones while warning lights flashing, though—for the purposes of comparing regulations across states—we considered this as equivalent to having no ban since it's application is much narrower than that of other states' restrictions.


Methodology

We compiled traffic fatality data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2015 to 2017 (the most recent years data was available). Distracted driving-related fatalities were attributed to accidents where drivers were reportedly distracted by:

  • Talking or listening to a cellphone
  • Manipulating a cellphone
  • Other cellphone-related distractions

Information about distracted driving regulations were gathered from the Governors Highway Safety Association. To compare across states with differing laws, we considered three main types of regulations:

  • Ban for handheld cellphone use: We considered a state to have a complete ban if the handheld use of cellphones is a primary violation for all drivers. States that only ban some drivers, such as novice drivers, from using handheld cellphones were considered to have partial bans.
  • All cellphone ban for novice drivers: We considered states where cellphone use is banned for novice drivers and is enforceable as a primary offense as having complete bans, and states where it is a secondary offense as having partial bans.
  • Texting ban: We considered states that ban texting as a primary offense as having complete bans, and states that consider it a secondary offense as having partial bans.

States with no legislation in the listed categories of distracted driving restrictions were considered as having no ban. Furthermore we also considered cases where a state's restriction had only a narrow application when compared to those of other states—as is the case with Tennessee's ban on handheld cellphone use in school zones—as having no ban as well.

Data on vehicle miles was obtained from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. The distracted driving fatalities rates represents the average annual recorded deaths attributed to cell phone related distracted driving accidents per 10 billion vehicle miles driven in the area in question.

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