Despite less traffic on the roads overall, the pandemic has spawned a disturbing rise in distracted driving behavior—some of which may have contributed to a motor vehicle death toll in 2020 that rose at the fastest rate in 13 years. That’s the message from several new analyses that track the impact of driving trends and outcomes amid COVID-19.  

Key Takeaways

  • New research finds changed driving patterns and increased traffic deaths during the pandemic.
  • Even though Americans generally drove less, many took more risks—and that may have contributed to the rising death toll.
  • Car insurance premiums have risen 16% nationally in the last 10 years—correlating with the surge in distracted driving.

False Sense of Security Drives Bad Habits

One in four drivers thinks roads are safer today than they were before the pandemic. And that belief has led some of them to take more chances while driving, according to the 2021 Travelers Risk Index on distracted driving, a national survey.

These pandemic-fostered driving habits included:

  • Texting or emailing (26% did so, up from 19% pre-pandemic).
  • Checking social media (20%, up from 13% pre-pandemic).
  • Taking videos and pictures (19%, up from 10% pre-pandemic).
  • Shopping online (17%, up from 8% pre-pandemic).

Chris Hayes, Travelers' second vice president of workers compensation and transportation, risk control, says lower traffic volumes as the pandemic began "may have given drivers a false sense of security."

Not only did distracted driving increase, but data from the insurer's telematics program showed that speeding also became more prevalent, he says.

People may be feeling work-related pressures as well, Hayes notes. One in four of those polled said they answer job-related calls and texts while behind the wheel, because:

  • 46% said they think it might be an emergency.
  • 29% said their supervisor would be upset if they don’t answer.
  • 22% said they can't "mentally shut off" from work.

Data Likely Underestimates the Impact

While the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says there aren't reliable estimates of the number of crashes directly caused by distracted driving, it believes that "statistics based on police-reported crash data almost certainly underestimate the role of distraction in fatalities."

In its report, Travelers says riskier driving habits that surfaced during the pandemic might have contributed in part to more—not less—dangerous roads. According to preliminary estimates by the National Safety Council (NSC), 2020 motor vehicle deaths were up 8% from 2019—the highest percentage increase in 13 years. And that rise occurred even as mileage dropped 13%, the NSC says. 

Distracted driving can result from many things, of course—from sipping coffee to adjusting the air conditioning—but the IIHS also cites research showing the clearer connection between cellphone use and distraction, finding that crash risk is two to six times greater "when drivers were manipulating a cellphone."

These distractions can lead to so-called "inattention blindness," the IIHS says, in which drivers fail to comprehend or process information from things in the roadway even when they’re looking straight at them.

More Distraction Equals Higher Insurance Costs

Generally, the higher the accident rate, the more money insurance companies must pay out in claims. Insurers then pass these costs along to drivers in the form of higher premiums.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners' Center for Insurance Policy and Research reports that car insurance premiums have increased 16% nationally since 2011, "correlating with the increase in distracted driving accidents."

What Drivers Can Do to Stay Safe

Many states have taken action to curb distracted driving. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 48 states and the District of Columbia now ban text messaging by drivers, 24 states plus D.C. prohibit all handheld cellphone use by drivers, and 37 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by novice drivers. But, as the IIHS notes, surveys show that a large percentage of drivers don't comply with their states laws.

As part of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, held annually in April, experts advise drivers to review their habits and refresh their efforts to drive distraction-free. Here are some prevention steps to keep in mind:

  • Set smartphones to "Do Not Disturb" or enable the optional "Do Not Disturb While Driving" setting on iPhones to automatically turn on while the car is in motion. 
  • Use voice commands (available in newer cars) to control infotainment, navigation, and portable devices—rather than touchscreens.
  • Build communication and break times into your work schedule so that you (and your employees or co-workers) don’t feel pressured to eat or respond to calls and texts while driving.
  • Appoint a passenger to be your "designated texter."
  • If you have to take a call or read a text, always pull over first and park your car in a safe place.