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Number 279                                                                                                      July 2003
U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590

National Survey of Distracted
and Drowsy Driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted its first national telephone survey focused on distracted and drowsy driving. The questionnaire was administered to a national probability sample of 4,010 drivers age 16 and older between February and April of 2002. The objectives were to improve our general knowledge of distracted and drowsy driving, to understand how serious the public considers these problems, and to determine what countermeasures they find acceptable to control distracted and drowsy driving. 

Distracted Driving 

Respondents were asked whether they considered various behaviors potentially distracting while they were driving a motor vehicle. Eight out of ten drivers (80%) considered reading while driving as the most dangerous activity; followed by use of remote internet equipment such as PDAs or wireless email (63%), personal grooming (61%), and looking at maps or directions (55%). 

Somewhat lower proportions of the public regard cell phone use as potentially distracting. About half (48%) of the respondents think that making an out-going cell phone call causes driving to be more dangerous and 44% feel that answering incoming calls makes driving more dangerous. Other activities considered dangerous by a large proportion of the public include answering or checking a pager or beeper (43%) and dealing with children in the back seat (40%). 

Crash Involvements Attributed to Distractions by Drivers 

Overall, about one in four drivers (26%) reported that they have been involved in a motor vehicle crash in the past 5 years. About 3.5% of the drivers who had a crash in this period, attribute it to their being distracted. 

Just 0.1% of drivers attribute a crash they have had in the past 5 years to their cell phone use. 

The Public Support Some Countermeasures 
to Reduce Cell Phone Use Related Crashes

The survey measured the level of support for five potential countermeasures to reduce cell phone use while driving. The majority (88%) support more public awareness about the risks of using a cell phone while driving, followed by restrictions on hand-held devices (71%), increased insurance penalties for being in a crash while using a cell phone (67%), and double or triple fines for traffic violations (61%). More than half (57%) say they would support a ban on all cell phone use while driving, except 9-1-1calls. 

Drowsy Driving 

Part of the survey asked drivers about drowsy driving. Overall, slightly more than one-third (37%) of the driving population said that they have nodded off while driving at some time in their lives. Males were almost twice as likely as females (49% vs 26%) to report falling asleep at the wheel. Younger drivers (those under 21) and older drivers (those over 64) were less likely to report nodding off while driving (18% and 30%, respectively). About 8% of drivers report nodding off within the past six months. 

Crash Involvements Attributed to Drowsy Driving by Drivers 

About 0.7% of all drivers report they have been involved in a crash in the past 5 years that they attribute to drowsy dri-ving. This includes 1.4% of those who have ever nodded off and 6.4% of these who say they have done so in the past six months. 

About 44% of all drivers involved in a drowsy-driving related crash are in their 20s yet they make up about 15% of the driving population; and about 70% of these drivers are males. 

Characteristics of Most Recent Episode of Drowsy Driving 

Time of day. Only 28% of drivers reported that their drowsy driving experience occurred between the hours of midnight and 6:00 am (though the study did not ask how many drivers made trips during this time period). Another 26% report that their last drowsy driving experience occurred between noon and 5:00 pm, while 17% said they nodded off between 5:00 pm and 9:00 pm. 

Time spent behind wheel. About 22% of drivers had been on the road for five or more hours, while nearly half (47%) had been driving for an hour or less. 

Hours slept the night before. About one quarter of drivers (24%) report having just four or fewer hours of sleep the night before their most recent drowsy driving episode; however one third (33%) report getting at least seven hours of sleep the night before. 

Use of alcohol or medications. Only 2% of drivers report having had alcohol before their most recent drowsy episode. About 12% report taking allergy or other medications prior to their trip. 

Actions taken when feeling drowsy while driving. Drivers report various actions to counter drowsy driving including: pulling over and taking a nap (43%), opening a window (26%), getting soda or coffee (17%), pulling over (15%), turning on or playing the radio loudly (14%), and getting out to stretch or exercise (9%). A higher proportion of dri-vers who have never nodded off while driving said they pull over to take a nap (46% vs. 38% of those who have fallen asleep). Those who have nodded off are more likely to report that they open the window (34% vs. 21%), turn up the volume on the radio (19% vs. 11%) and get out and stretch/exercise (12% vs. 5%). 


For a copy of National Survey of Distracted and Drowsy Driving Attitudes and Behaviors, 2001, write to the Office of Research and Technology, NHTSA, NTI-132, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590 or send a fax to (202) 366-7096. Paul J. Tremont, Ph.D., was the project officer for this contract.

Traffic Tech is a publication to disseminate information about traffic safety programs, including evaluations, innovative programs, and new publications. Feel free to copy it as you wish. If you would like to receive a copy contact: Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., Editor, fax (202) 366-7096 email: