Distracted Driving vs. DUI/DWI

Although drunk driving has been the forefront of the debate for decades regarding accidents due to driver impairment, the advent of texting, hands-free phone devices, navigation systems, and other distractions have received substantial attention in road safety issues.

While statistics show that drunk driving fatalities have decreased, it is becoming more apparent that distracted driving fatalities are actually on the rise.

Comparing the two serves as a helpful tool to analyze the dangers of distracted driving unrelated to alcohol, and proves why the federal and state governments have increased their efforts to reduce distracted driving fatalities.

Studies and Statistics

A study was done by psychologists at the University of Utah as early as 2006 revealed in a controlled experiment that drivers using cell phones (handheld or hands-free) exhibited greater impairment than legally intoxicated drivers. The study claims that drivers using cell phones attempted to overcompensate for more sluggish reaction times by slowing their speed and increasing their following distance, which actually made them more of a hazard on the road by decreasing attentiveness.

A more recent study compiled in 2013 by researchers at Cohen Children’s Medical Center revealed that in teenagers, around 3,000 deaths and 300,000 injuries occur per year result from distracted driving. The results show that for teens, in particular, distracted driving, mainly by sending and reading text messages, has actually become a greater hazard than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Distracted Driving Laws vs. DUI Laws

Although studies and statistics prove that distracted driving is just as, if not more, dangerous than driving under the influence, DUI/DWI laws and penalties are still typically much steeper than those for distracted driving offenses. A DUI conviction could cause a driver to go to jail in all but eight states, while the only two states in which a driver could face jail time for distracted driving are Utah and Alaska.

The fines associated with distracted driving charges are typically much lower than those for DUI charges as well. In California, for example, the fine for writing, sending, or reading text messages while driving is $20 for the first offense and $50 for each subsequent offense. However, the fine for a DUI conviction in California is up to $1,000 for a first-time offender, and up to $1,800 for subsequent offenses.

Many road safety activists have called for steeper penalties in recent years for distracted driving that more closely emulate those for driving under the influence. A proposed bill in Pennsylvania, HB 853, would mandate a jail sentence of up to five years if a driver hurts or kills someone while engaging in distracting behaviors on the road.

More Information

For more information on distracted driving laws, penalties, and how they relate to driving under the influence, here are some additional resources: