Drunk vs. Distracted Driving: Which Is Worse?

You’re driving down a street on your way home from an appointment. Twenty yards ahead, the traffic light turns yellow, and the car in front of you brakes. No problem – you’re at a safe following distance. You start braking, too. Suddenly you hear a deafening crash. Your car lurches as it’s hit from behind. Your neck whips forward and snaps back. You sit in shock for a moment, dazed and in pain. When you come to your senses, you look in your rearview mirror, half expecting to see a road-raged or even intoxicated adult sitting in the car behind you – but it’s a teenage girl clutching her iPhone. She was texting while driving, didn’t notice you brake and hit your car while traveling at less than 30 mph.

This scenario is more common than you might think. Most people will list drunk driving as their first guess for the most lethal cause of collisions caused by negligence, but digital gadgetry has ushered in a new era of “distracted driving” collisions – especially texting while driving accidents. What exactly is distracted driving? Distraction can take almost infinite forms (how many different things do you wish you could accomplish while driving?), but the most commonly cited are:

  • Texting
  • Using a cell phone or smartphone
  • Eating and drinking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming
  • Reading, including maps
  • Using a navigation system
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player

Which leads us to one question about drunk versus distracted driving: is one more dangerous than the other?

The DWI – “Driving While Intoxicated”

In 2010, 10,228 people died in alcohol-impaired driving accidents in the United States. This accounted for 31% of all traffic-related deaths. The driver’s BAC determines whether or not they’re drunk and national law defines intoxication as a BAC of 0.08% or higher.

Who Drives Drunk?

Among the drivers involved in the 10,000+ alcohol-related deaths in 2010, those with a BAC of 0.08% or higher fell into the following age categories:

  • 21 to 24 years of age – 34 percent
  • 25 to 34 years of age – 30 percent
  • 35 to 44 years of age – 25 percent

Though these numbers point to the young as the main culprits of drunk driving accidents, the statistics shift when we examine alcohol-related fatalities among motorcycle drivers. In motorcycle accidents related to alcohol, drivers aged 40-44 made up 44% of the fatalities.

Death Toll: Beyond The Drivers

Though drivers make up the majority of alcohol-related fatalities, no one drives in a vacuum, and many other people die in these kinds of collisions. In a 2011 study of annual fatalities in drunk driving accidents, 66% of deaths were drivers (6,507), 27% were motor vehicle occupants (2,661) and 7% were non-occupants (710).

This means that every 53 minutes in the U.S., someone dies as a result of drunk driving.

Who Is Driving Drunk In Illinois?

In 2011, Illinois’s population was approximately 12 million people, with 5 million people residing in Cook County alone. For comparison’s sake to the national studies cited thus far, the population of the United States in 2011 was about 310 million people, making Illinois 4% of the population.

One Illinois-specific study more closely examined the relationship between drunk drivers who had died in accidents and their age, specifically noting whether or not they were over the legal drinking age of 21.

The findings: a total of 279 people died in Illinois in 2011 as a result of drunk driving accidents. This number mirrored national averages, coming to 30.4% of all driving fatalities. The number of fatalities of alcohol-impaired drivers who were under 21 years of age was 31, which made up 22.3% of all driving fatalities. To examine these numbers in a different way, for every 100,000 residents of Illinois, 2.2 died in alcohol-related crashes and 0.9 of them were under the age of 21.

Distracted Driving – It’s All The Rage

Distractions are all around us. They can be seen, heard and felt or they can demand the attention of all of our senses at once. Obviously, the more senses a task involves, the more distracting it is. For example, listening to music is audibly stimulating, but does not involve visual distraction or require physical interaction.

Conversely, texting while driving involves all three senses: the sound of an alert, the visual of the words on the screen and the physical hand motions required to view and send texts. Texting seems like a quick, easy task, but when you really stop and think about it, it’s incredibly distracting!

Here’s a shocking statistic – during daylight hours in the U.S., approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices at any given time. On average, sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for between four and five seconds. If traveling at 55 miles per hour, texting while driving is equivalent to driving the length of a football field while blindfolded.

Texting While Driving Accidents

As you can imagine, spanning such a long stretch of road with your eyes averted can easily lead to an accident. So it’s not much of a surprise that in 2011, 3,331 people in the U.S. were killed in crashes involving distracted driving. Among the total fatal accidents involving drivers under the age of 20, 11% were reported as distracted at the time of impact. Among drivers aged 15 to 19, 21% were distracted specifically by cell phones.

How do drunk driving and distracted driving compare when it comes to teens? In a direct comparison of fatalities, more than 3,000 teens die annually from texting while driving accidents, whereas about 2,700 die while driving under the influence of alcohol. For this age group, texting proves the deadlier activity and it makes sense when you consider that when surveyed, half of high school students admitted to texting while driving.

Which States Allow Texting While Driving?

So what are lawmakers doing to combat distracted driving accidents? The answer to that question varies from state to state, and some states are more strict than others. In fact, a State University of New York study lists the 11 U.S. states without laws banning texting while driving:

  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas

What People Are Saying

Despite the variations in state laws, support for distracted driving legislation is strong countrywide. The previously mentioned SUNY study cites a survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 90% of drivers support laws to ban texting while driving. A similar survey by Nationwide Insurance, which surveyed opinion on cell phone use while driving in general, reported that 80% of drivers support some type of restrictions.

Almost 75% of those surveyed also believe that restrictions should apply to all drivers, not just to specific groups such as teens.

How do Illinois Laws Treat Distracted Driving?

In May of 2013, the Illinois senate approved a bill that bans handheld cell phone use while driving. Similarly, the House passed Bill 1247, which reads the same but allows for the use of hands-free devices. An exception is made for handheld devices that are equipped with one-touch dialing and answering. A violation of these laws would result in a $75 fine.

Who’s affected? Presently, driving in Illinois while using a cell phone is illegal for:

  • Learner’s permit holders
  • Those under age 19
  • School bus drivers
  • All drivers operating vehicles in school and construction zones

In addition, there are currently 75 municipalities throughout Illinois, including Chicago, which have banned cell phone use, regardless of the driver’s age. Illinois laws regarding distracted driving prohibit all drivers from texting while driving.

The Bans on Texting While Driving are Working – Right?

All of this legislation raises the question – do bans actually prevent texting while driving accidents or drunk driving accidents? Some research suggests that they don’t.

For example, in a national survey on distracted driving, 57% of boys said they text while driving in states that prohibit it, and 59% said they text while driving in states that do not. When it comes to teenage boys at least, legislation doesn’t seem to serve as much of a deterrent against distracted driving.

Here’s another red flag that laws may not be doing much – an Illinois study on drunk driving accidents revealed a high occurrence of repeat offenders. Drivers who were involved in fatal crashes with a BAC of 0.08% or higher were four times more likely to have had a prior conviction of “DWI” – driving while intoxicated – than were drivers killed with no alcohol in their systems.

Additionally, the 2011 study found that these “repeat offender” drivers had a significantly higher BAC than 0.08% at the time of the crash – over 0.15%. This was true in 100% of the annual cases. None of the drivers killed with a BAC between 0.08% and 0.14% had ever been convicted of a DWI before.

The Takeaway

Though alcohol-related collisions take more lives every year than texting while driving accidents, it’s cell phone-related distracted driving that is most lethal to teens – and the people they hit.

Now that you know the dangers you’re facing, return to our opening scenario, which left you dazed in the driver’s seat of your car after being hit by a texting teen. If you ever find yourself in this all-too-common situation, follow these four steps to best protect yourself:

 

  1. You and the other driver must not leave the scene of the accident. It is illegal to do so in most states, and it would negatively impact your ability to recover your losses in the future.

 

  1. Document all evidence. Take pictures of the cars, road conditions and any injuries to yourself. Get as much information as possible from the other party, including contact and insurance details. Ask to see the driver’s license yourself so you can ensure the information you’re taking down is accurate.

 

  1. Call your insurance agent. Do this as soon after the accident as possible, even before visiting the doctor. Document every phone conversation you have with your insurance company, including names, dates and times as well as the details of each conversation. Carefully review your contract with them to determine what obligations exist on your part and theirs.

 

  1. In the case that you’ve been injured, contact a personal injury attorney. An experience personal injury or dui attorney will be able to guide you through the labyrinth of laws, policies, and insurance hurdles that await you. Having a professional at your side ensures that you receive proper compensation.

Need the support of a true professional? The attorneys at Ankin Law Office have dedicated their careers to specialization in U.S. and Illinois laws involving personal injury. We proudly serve residents from Cook County to Peoria County, Chicago to Joliet, Oak Park to Oak Lawn. Let an experienced team of experts represent your case and recover your losses.

In the mood for fast facts? Check out the infographic we created here.

While handsfree devices are allowed in the State of Illinois, Howard Ankin warns drivers that there is a heightened risk that handsfree devices can pose to them.

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