Before cellphones, distracted driving in California often entailed a motorist who was changing radio stations, eating fast food or applying makeup while at the wheel. With so many digital technologies readily available, distracted driving has become more common. Another familiar road hazard is drunk driving, but the two impaired states and their consequences are not as similar as a person might think.
The California Office of Traffic Safety conducted a survey in 2016 asking drivers if they had ever been hit or nearly hit by a distracted driver. Over half of the participants answered yes. Among drivers under the age of 20 who were involved in fatal crashes, 10 percent were reported as distracted.
Legally speaking, how does distracted driving differ from drunk driving? In a distracted driving incident, when no one is injured, a first-time offender may pay a small fine of $20 and see no time in jail. The National Law Review compares that to drunk driving, which results in a much larger fine and up to six months in jail for the first, nonfatal offense. Even repeated convictions of distracted driving with no injuries result in no jail time, simply a slightly larger fine of $50. This disparity of consequences is not mirrored by the rate such drivers make mistakes.
While distracted driving is becoming more common, some data may suggest it is also more dangerous. A driving simulator tested a range of participants to see who drove better, someone with a high blood alcohol content or someone talking on the phone. The drunk drivers performed better.