New Data Shows Houston Leads the Nation in Distracted Driving

By Michael GrossmanApril 23, 2018Reading Time: 4 minutes

All the major Lone Star cities see their share of DWI injuries and fatalities every year, but as I've noted, Houston is the undisputed state champ in that department--not that the crown is anything to covet.

Not content with that infamy, Houston apparently grew even more ambitious. Thanks to information recently put out by a data analysis firm, I recently learned that "Space City" now leads the entire nation in distracted driving.

What Is Distracted Driving?

We elaborate on the concept elsewhere, but basically distracted driving is when a motorist pays attention to something other than his or her driving responsibilities. Hundreds of thousands crashes happen yearly during these times of diverted focus. Doing anything but mindfully driving--eating/drinking, messing with radio dials, paying more attention to passengers than to the road, restarting a Disney DVD for the umpteenth time for the kids--is distracted driving.

More likely to cause a crash than all these influences combined, though, is the omnipresent smartphone. Gone are the days when boredom meant drumming on the steering wheel or playing with the power windows; instead, we open our apps the moment we sense a lull in traffic. Look around at a stop light and you're bound to see at least one person glancing down at her lap, or even holding her little electronic co-pilot up against the steering wheel as she checks her map route or scrolls through Facebook. Heck, you can see people doing it while they're going 70 on the freeway! But don't look around for them. That's distracted driving too.

Here's a quick example of how dangerous playing with a phone is while driving: Sending or reading a text takes someone's eyes off the road for an average of 5 seconds. That may not sound like much, but at 55 mph it's basically equivalent to driving the entire length of a football field with their eyes closed. Moreover, as more things become available (social media, music players, photo editing), that distracted interval gets longer all the time.

The law is trying to catch up to this phenomenon, banning cell phone use while driving. Violators are issued a citation and a fine, but the laws as written will be very difficult to enforce. Based on what I see on the road, it doesn't seem people take the prohibition too seriously in its current form.

Got It, Distraction is Bad. Where Does Houston Come In?

The driving analytics firm Zendrive makes use of smartphone data and input to detect how its users conduct themselves on the road. According to its website, the app uses the phone's sensors to detect erratic road behaviors such as "aggravated" or distracted driving. The ultimate goal of collecting this information is to make roads and drivers safer (and to collect a tidy profit off selling it to automakers, insurers, and fleet operators, but I have no gripe with that).

To celebrate collecting an alleged 100 billion miles' worth of driving data, Zendrive released a 2018 "Distracted Driving Snapshot." Their analysis is very different from reports issued by the National Highway Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA), which estimate that roughly 660,000 drivers use their phones while driving every day in the U.S. According to Zendrive's collected data, the number of phone-using drivers every day is actually closer to a whopping 69 million. They also determined that

  • 60% of drivers use their phones behind the wheel at least once during the day,
  • 40% of drivers use their phones behind the wheel at least once at any given hour of the day, and
  • People use their phones for longer durations while driving than they did as recently as a year ago.

That's already pretty alarming, but Zendrive wasn't done. They arranged their findings geographically to find out which U.S. cities were the most guilty of distracted driving behaviors. That's where Houston comes in--at the tip-top of the 10 most distracted cities in the nation. Here's all ten, ranked from most distracted to least:

  1. Houston, TX
  2. Miami, FL
  3. Detroit, MI
  4. San Jose, CA
  5. Los Angeles County, CA
  6. Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim, CA
  7. Boston/Cambridge/Newton, MA
  8. San Francisco, CA
  9. Denver, CO
  10. Philadelphia, PA

And there it is: Houston is the city with the worst DUI statistics in Texas and the worst distracted-driving statistics in the entire United States. While Texas itself isn't quite the worst state for either problem (twelfth in drunk driving, sixth in distraction), its performance is hardly exemplary. There's obvious room for improvement, which I suppose can be said for any place where either kind of risky driving happens.

Houston (And Everyone Else) Must Do Better.

Despite my misgivings, though, Zendrive's ostensible goal helpful, and it's not forcing anyone to download its app. There's no denying the value of their information, either; that hundred billion miles' worth of data shows us a trend far more insidious than the government's incident reports portrayed. Those numbers mean everyone needs to better if we're ever going to drive down the number of injuries and deaths on the road.

Anything we do that takes our attention off the road drastically increases our chances of crashing. There's no safe way to engage with distractions while operating a vehicle. Houston is apparently the nation's primary example of that, as it already was in Texas for the dangers of drunk driving. While it obviously needs to address both these problems, in the meantime we can all treat it as an example of what not to do.

I'm unsure what solutions might be effective considering 69 million people a day consciously engage in this destructive behavior. Safety features like airbags and seatbelts can reduce the consequences of drivers' bad choices (when they work), but they can't prevent them. Advances in "self-driving" vehicle technology are slowed by bad publicity and rare-but-serious wrecks that fuel public skepticism. "Awareness" campaigns appealing to drivers' senses of reason and self-preservation aren't particularly effective. Harsher legal penalties for offenders seem unlikely given how bitterly the legislature fought against the current ones. So how do we bring the numbers back down?