The Zebra’s 2018 Distracted Driving Report

The Zebra’s 2018 Distracted Driving Report


Over the past decade or longer, the risks associated with distracted driving have proven extreme and deadly. Despite the extensive research surrounding these risks and the pervasiveness of the behavior, however, the insurance industry has yet to raise rates for distracted drivers – until now.


The Zebra’s 2018 Distracted Driving Report reveals that for the first time since the advent of cell phones, car insurance companies are penalizing drivers who text or use their cell phones while driving. In fact, the average insurance penalty is up nearly 8,000% since 2011 – and it’s costing some people hundreds or even thousands of dollars on their annual premium. The report explores where insurance penalties for distracted driving have been spiking across the U.S. and by how much, as well as questions including:

  • Why have insurers only just begun to raise car insurance rates for distracted driving violations, despite the proven dangers and risks associated with the behavior?
  • Why are penalties for distracted driving so low compared to violations like drunk driving, speeding, or even slow driving?
  • Do these insurance penalties help deter dangerous driving behavior?
  • Should drivers expect these penalties to continue to increase?

First, a few definitions:

  • Violation: a traffic ticket that goes on your driving record which insurance companies use to assess your risk and determine your rates

  • Distracted driving: texting while driving or otherwise using a cell phone while driving

  • DUI: driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs

  • Penalty: the amount an insurance premium is raised for a specific rating factor (in this case, a driving violation)




Key Findings: Auto Insurance Industry Raising Rates for Distracted Drivers


1. Insurance penalty for distracted driving up nearly 8,000%

Among the many factors which affect car insurance rates is an individual’s driving record. A ticket for distracted driving (texting or using your cell phone while driving) would have raised a driver’s car insurance rates by 0.2% in 2011, costing them less than $3 per year. Now, the same violation will raise rates 16%, or about $226 – a penalty increase of about 7,900%.

For context, the national average auto insurance premium rose 20% in the same time period – from $1,194 in 2011 to $1,427 at the end of 2017.


Insurance Penalties for Distracted Driving by Year:

Year National Average Premium Annual premium penalty for distracted driving (dollars) Annual premium penalty for distracted driving (percent increase) Penalty increase over previous year (percent) Penalty increase over 2011 (percent)
2011 $1,964 $2.35 0.20% -- --
2012 $1,276 $3.01 0.24% 20% 20%
2013 $1,195 $3.75 0.31% 33% 59%
2014 $1,229 $12.63 1.03% 225% 421%
2015 $1,280 $22.94 1.79% 74% 658%
2016 $1,368 $184.64 13.5% 658% 6744%
2017 $1,427 $226.36 15.9% 17% 7944%

In comparison, the average penalty increase for all other violations was 33% from 2011 to 2017, and averaged 30% from one year to the next.




2. Insurers in all states now cracking down on distracted drivers – but inconsistently


  • As of late 2017, insurers in all states penalized distracted driving, whereas only 10 did in 2011.
  • Although insurers in Vermont did not raise rates for distracted driving violations until 2016, they now penalize them the most of any state, with an annual premium increase of 41%.
  • Across the country, penalties for distracted driving range from just $2.51 (New York) to $681 (Michigan). In some cities the penalty nears $2,000.

States with Highest Rate Increases for Distracted Driving Violation:
  • Vermont – 41% ($425)
  • Connecticut – 34% ($520)
  • Oregon – 31% ($432)
  • Mississippi – 31% ($559)
  • Tennessee – 29% ($379)
  • Arizona – 28% ($344)
  • Michigan – 26% ($681)
  • Maine – 25% ($236)
  • Ohio – 25% ($263)
  • New Jersey – 24% ($407)

Cities with Highest Rate Increases for Distracted Driving Violation:
  • Burlington, VT – 40% ($398)
  • New Haven, CT – 36% ($741)
  • Hartford, CT – 35% ($682)
  • Portland, OR – 32% ($507)
  • Jackson, MS – 31% ($570)
  • Knoxville, TN – 30% ($388)
  • Nashville, TN – 29% ($373)
  • Chattanooga, TN – 29% ($367)
  • Memphis, TN – 29% ($451)
  • Phoenix, AZ – 28% ($432)

3. Still, distracted driving penalties are pennies compared to DUIs and other driving violations


Despite the marked increase in the average insurance penalty for distracted driving, the cost – 16% or $226 – is still substantially lower than the cost of other driving violations, raising the question: how risky do insurance companies deem these behaviors?

Violations for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI), for example, have consistently been among the most highly penalized driving violations over time and across the country. DUI violations raise rates 77%, or about $1,092, on average.


Penalties for other violations, however, vary quite a bit – from those seemingly harmless tickets:
  • Failure to show documents: $150
  • Driving too slowly: $345
  • Illegal turn: $382

...to negligent or reckless behaviors:
  • Speeding 21-25 mph over the limit: $433
  • Passing a school bus: $490
  • Causing an accident: $1,019

Still, the degree to which these rate changes are occurring is perhaps the greatest indicator of a shift in focus on distracted driving. Compared to a 7900% penalty increase for distracted driving since 2011, the average penalty increase for the following wide range of driving violations is just 57%:

  • Failure to show documents: Penalty up 36%
  • Driving too slowly: Penalty up 72%
  • Illegal turn: Penalty up 74%
  • Speeding 21-25 mph over the limit: Penalty up 41%
  • Passing a school bus: Penalty up 62%
  • Causing an accident: Penalty up 56%



Distracted Driving vs. Drunk Driving: How Insurers Weigh the Risks


Most people know that driving while intoxicated is highly dangerous, illegal, and will get them in big trouble if they’re caught. And many people know the same is largely true for distracted driving. So how do insurance companies view the risk these behaviors pose?


Costs Distracted Driving DUI
Loss of Life 9 people per day / ~3,500 people per year 28 people per day / ~10,000+ people per year
Economic Impact $129 billion per year $199 billion per year
Number of States with Laws Against Violation 47 + DC (texting while driving) 15 + DC (phone use while driving) 50 + DC
Legal Fine $900  $100 
Insurance Fine $226 $1,092

Drunk Driving vs. Distracted Driving: Measuring the Dangers & Economic Costs

Both drunk and distracted driving involve driver negligence inside the vehicle which often leads to erratic behavior that can turn a car into a deadly weapon.


U.S. Drunk Driving Stats
  • Every day, 28 people die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.1
  • Drunk driving crashes claimed 10,497 lives in 2016, an increase of 1.7% over 2015.2
  • 28% of motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the U.S. were caused by alcohol-impaired driving in 2016.
  • The most recent NHTSA research available reports that crashes caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol accounted for 18% of the total economic loss due to motor vehicle crashes and cost the nation $49 billion in 2010 – or $158 for every person in the U.S. Including lost quality of life, these crashes were responsible for $199 billion or 23% of the overall societal harm caused by motor vehicle crashes.

U.S. Distracted Driving Stats
  • Every day, 9 people die in motor vehicle crashes that involve a distracted driver.1
  • Distracted driving crashes claimed 3,450 lives in 2016, a decrease of 2.2%.2
  • 10% of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the U.S. were caused by distracted driving in 2015.
  • Crashes involving a distracted driver accounted for 17% of the total economic loss and cost the nation $46 billion in 2010 – or $148 for every person in the U.S. Including lost quality of life, these crashes were responsible for $129 billion or 15% of the overall societal harm caused by motor vehicle crashes.



Drunk Driving vs. Distracted Driving in the Eyes of the Law


Drunk Driving Laws
  • All states but Utah define driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above 0.08 percent as a crime, and specific laws and penalties vary substantially from state to state. Effective December 30, 2018, Utah’s BAC will be set at 0.05 percent.4
  • Currently, 37 states have alcohol exclusion laws, which allow insurance companies to deny payment for treatment of drunk drivers' injuries.
  • 44 states plus Washington, DC have first offense license suspension laws, and many have variations of vehicle confiscation or impoundment laws.

Distracted Driving Laws
  • All but 3 states have a texting-while-driving ban (Arizona, Missouri, and Montana).3
  • Only 16 states have a ban on handheld devices for all drivers.
  • 7 states have “secondary” enforcement laws, which require law enforcement officers to have some other reason to stop a vehicle before citing a driver for using a cell phone.

How effective are these laws?

Between 1975 and 2016, minimum drinking age laws saved 31,417 lives, according to the NHTSA.

A 2014 study by the IIHS, however, concluded that despite the increasing number of laws limiting phone use, it’s unclear whether they are having the intended effects on behavior and crashes, citing unreliable police reports and the variation among type and enforcement of laws.




3. Drunk Driving vs. Distracted Driving: How Car Insurance Companies View and Penalize the Risks


No doubt the human casualties are the greatest, and most tragic consequences of drunk and distracted driving. But if we’re considering the many repercussions of drinking and driving or texting and driving, there’s one cost drivers often forget: their car insurance rates.

A violation for either will take a hit on your car insurance rates – in fact, the penalty will affect your premium for three years* after the incident – but it hasn’t always been that way.


Car Insurance Penalties for Drunk Driving:
  • A DUI would have raised a driver’s car insurance rates by 71%, or about $852, in 2011.
  • Now the insurance penalty for a DUI is 77%, or $1,092 – a penalty increase of about 7%.
  • In some states, the DUI penalty is as high as 323%; in others, it’s as low as 31%.

However, as we’ve seen above, a violation for texting or using a cell phone while driving has had only a fraction of that impact on car insurance rates. On average, penalties for drunk driving are 383% higher than for distracted driving. And some states have much more severe punishments for one violation than the other. In New York, a distracted violation adds just $2.51 to a drivers’ car insurance rate, but a DUI will cost them $1,207 – or nearly 48,000% more!

But that’s all starting to change.



Car Insurance Penalties for Distracted Driving:
  • Distracted driving would have raised a driver’s car insurance rates by 0.2%, or about $2.35, in 2011.
  • Now the insurance penalty for distracted driving is 16%, or $226 – a penalty increase of about 7,900%.
  • In some states, the distracted driving penalty is as high as 41%; in others, it’s as low as 0.16%.


Insurance Penalties: Distracted Driving (DD) vs. Drunk Driving (DUI)

Year Number of States with Insurance Penalty for DD Violation Number of States with Insurance Penalty for DUI Violation Insurance Penalty for DD (Dollars) Insurance Penalty for DD (Percent) Insurance Penalty for DUI (Dollars) Insurance Penalty for DUI (Percent)
2011 10 50 + DC $2.35 0.20% $852.38 71.41%
2012 7 50 + DC $2.35 0.20% $852.38 71.41%
2013 9 50 + DC $3.75 0.31% $997.13 83.41%
2014 21 50 + DC $12.63 1.03% $968.97 78.83%
2015 26 50 + DC $22.94 1.79% $1,011.21 78.98%
2016 50 + DC 50 + DC $184.64 13.49% $1,121.86 81.98%
2017 50 + DC 50 + DC $226.36 15.86% $1,092.31 76.53%


distracted driving



Will Insurers Continue to Penalize Distracted Drivers?


(As always with insurers,) it’s about risk. In order to predict whether the rising penalties for distracted driving behavior will continue, we need a better understanding of why – or why not – insurers might consider a certain behavior risky, if that behavior is likely to change, or if certain measures might help curb that risky behavior. Let’s break it down:



Why have insurers only just begun to raise car insurance rates for distracted driving violations, despite the proven danger?

Insurance industry regulators must ensure that insurance companies are using fair methods to set rates, so any changes they make must be justified and approved. Insurance companies consider many rating factors to determine rates – information to do with what kind of car you drive, where you live, driver characteristics (age, gender, etc.), and of course driving record.

We can likely assume that in the past two years insurance companies have determined they have sufficient data about the riskiness of drivers who receive distracted driving violations on their driving records to raise rates accordingly and that they have substantial proof to convince regulators of the validity of their rate changes.



Why have insurers raised rates most for distracted driving versus other violations?

Distracted driving is really the only new violation impacting driving records in the past several decades, brought on, obviously, by the spread of handheld phones. And although cell phones and even smart phones might not seem new to most drivers in this day and age, the insurance industry has likely been monitoring the risk they pose, following the laws enacted to prevent and punish the behaviors, and assessing the losses (property and human casualty) to determine how to price that risk appropriately.



Do these insurance penalties help deter dangerous driving behavior?

When we think about the deterrents to this kind of behavior, unfortunately people often think of the associated monetary costs. For example, a DUI can cost a driver thousands of dollars in fines, attorney fees, and alcohol abuse education, among other expenses. As we’ve reported, the violation will also keep their car insurance rates an average of more than $1,000 higher each year for three years – that’s another $3,000 or more right there.

And drunk driving behavior is changing. According to the NHTSA,5 the number of alcohol-related fatalities decreased 20% nationally between 2007 and 2016. Between 2015 and 2016, however, they increased 1.7%. (2017 data is not yet available.)

Of course some might say “correlation does not equal causation,” and that may be true, but it would be hard to argue that increased awareness and penalties for drunk driving have had no bearing on its decline.

What we do know is that over time, insurers (among others) have continued to penalize drunk driving, and the casualties associated with drunk driving have decreased. If there’s a chance to create the same impact with distracted driving, many argue harsher penalties would be more than worth it.



Should drivers expect insurance penalties for distracted driving to continue to increase?

In short, probably not. If laws are any indicator… yes.

  • Within a decade, nearly every state in the U.S. has established and enforced clear legislation regarding distracted driving behavior. Washington was the first state to pass a texting ban in 2007. Today, all but three states have a texting-while-driving ban (Arizona, Missouri, and Montana).
  • State legislators are increasingly particular about defining what constitutes as legal distracted driving behavior, specifying age of driver, permit or license status, location of vehicle (ie. school zone, highway, etc.), type of phone operation (phone calls, voice-activated text messaging, etc.), and more.3 For example:
    • In California, drivers cannot hold or operating a phone or “electronic communication device” at all, and only drivers 18 and older can dictate, send, or listen to text-based messages if they're using voice-activated, hands-free devices. In Oregon, drivers cannot hold a “personal electronic device” in either hand or both hands while driving on a public highway, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic.
    • In Louisiana, all drivers younger than 18 and all drivers with learner's permits (of any age) are prohibited from using any cell phone.


If human behavior is any indicator… yes.
  • Americans are driving more than ever – 3.1 billion miles in 2015 alone – and are buying more cars than ever6.
  • Nearly everyone has a mobile phone. In the U.S. mobile phone use is approximately 82%7 and climbing, and smart phone use is approximately 73%8 and climbing even faster.
  • Drivers still aren’t putting their phones down. According to a 2017 study by Zendrive, which uses smart phone data to analyze driving behavior, drivers use their smart phones in nearly 9 out of every 10 trips, and are on their phones for 3.5 minutes of every hour on the road.9


If insurance carrier behavior is any indicator… yes.
  • As reported above, since 2011, the penalty for distracted driving has only increased, and since 2015, it’s risen at an extreme rate compared to industry trends for other violations. This indicates the industry has identified the behavior as a risk and will continue to monitor the role the behavior plays in crashes and claims.
  • Many insurance carriers are also conducting studies, creating campaigns, and taking public stances against distracted driving:
    • Travelers Insurance’s Every Second Matters initiative “recognizes that every driver, passenger and pedestrian has a role to play in changing social norms around distraction.”
    • Allstate Insurance has an annual nationwide “Reality Rides” tour which features a simulator that lets people experience the impacts of distracted driving. Last year’s tour stopped in 50 cities throughout the U.S. and Canada.
    • Other massive brands speaking out against distracted driving include GEICO, Progressive, State Farm, and Nationwide.

The insurance industry is data-driven and intentional – and regulated to be so – when it comes to assessing risk and setting auto insurance rates. Given the amount of data pointing to the continued risk distracted driving is likely to pose, drivers may likely expect insurance penalties for distracted driving to continue – if not increase – in the coming years.





1Center for Disease Control (CDC)

2U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

3Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

4Governors Highway Safety Association

5NHTSA 2016 Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview

6NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS)

7Statista United States Mobile Phone Penetration 2014-2020

8Statista Smartphone Penetration in the U.S. As Share of Population 2010-2022

9Zendrive Distracted Driving Behavior Study