People Using Smartphones While Driving: The Numbers Are In

You're sitting in a line of cars at the intersection, waiting for the light to change - when it finally turns green, the 2nd car just sits there for several seconds until someone honks at them, and then they scoot through the light ... but everyone behind them has to sit through another red light cycle. Those (blankety-blank) red light texters!

We probably all think the number of people using their phones while driving is high, but never had the data to prove it. Well, with the results of Zendrive's recent study of 3 million drivers, now we do! But before we get into analyzing that data, here's an interesting photo of a rare double rainbow that a friend of mine took with their phone ... yes, while driving (don't worry J.M. -- I won't out you!)

And now, let's analyze some data! ... The Zendrive study used smartphone apps to detect phone use while driving (ie, "when the driver handles the phone for a certain period of time for various purposes such as talking, texting or navigating"). Their three month study involved 3 million drivers, 570 million trips, and 5.6 billion miles of driving. Their main finding was that drivers are using their phones during 88% of their trips -- wow!

They also provided some more detailed data at the state level, showing the average percent of time people spent using their phones while driving. Here's a portion of their table:

It's great to show the data in a table, but I was glad to see they had also plotted it on a map!

Their map was 'interesting,' and I could quickly identify the states with the highest values. But it was difficult to match the multitude of gradient shades from the map to the legend. I decided to create a SAS version of the map using only 5 gradient shades of color, to see if that might help. I think it's a nice improvement!

But then I started coming up with other ideas that might make the map even better ... for example, using quantile binning. In my next version of the map, each color is assigned to about 20% of the states (quintiles). Whereas the previous map made it easy to identify just the highest two states, this map makes it easier to identify the highest (and lowest) 20% of the states. I think this map is generally more useful, but looking at both maps is, of course, even better than just looking at the data in one way.

There's one other detail the original map had, that my map doesn't ... they included a footnote listing the states that ban hand-held devices. Their footnote was quite long, and it was cumbersome to read all the states, and try to mentally locate them on the map, and keep track of them all. I decided to represent the information visually, by annotating a no symbol on each of those states.

And now for the pop quiz ...

  • What factors cause certain states to have lower (or higher) phone usage while driving?
  • Since data were collected via smartphone apps, does it undercount people with flip phones?
  • What's your opinion on using phones while driving?
  • Where do you fit into these numbers? (higher, or lower?)

Feel free to discuss this topic in the comments section!

This blog was reposted from the SAS Learning Post. Go there to view the original.

Robert Allison, The Graph Guy!, SAS

Robert Allison has worked at SAS for more than 20 years and is perhaps the foremost expert in creating custom graphs using SAS/GRAPH. His educational background is in computer science, and he holds a BS, MS, and PhD from North Carolina State University. He is the author of several conference papers, has won a few graphic competitions, and has written a book calledSAS/GRAPH: Beyond the Basics.

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Re: Correlation?
  • 4/22/2017 10:34:36 AM

I don't text while driving but my new car pops up texts on the navigation screen. They don't display the message just the sender and that a text arrived and will displayed when the car is stopped. I actually find it distracting but it can't be turned off. I don't feel any necessity to respond until I am safely not driving. Most people feel that texts need an immediate response and that is causing the dependence on driving with the phone in hand. It is a huge safety issue and the penalties should be steep. No one's life is worth a text, put on the radio and drive the way we have for decades.

Re: Correlation?
  • 4/21/2017 2:49:21 PM

@SaneIT In NY the penalty is quite severe and has been effect since June 1, 2013:

cell phone violations and texting & driving violations now carry 5 points (up from 3). A cell phone violation occurs when a driver uses a phone without a hands-free device. A texting and driving violation occurs when a driver"uses" an electronic device while driving.

But it doesn't stop everyone from doing it.

Re: Correlation?
  • 4/21/2017 9:22:03 AM

It isn't technically banned in FL yet, you can get a ticket for texting and driving as a secondary offense IF you are pulled over for another offense.  There is a push to make texting and driving a primary offense though, it has just been stuck in legislation. 

Great visualization
  • 4/21/2017 4:54:50 AM

Your style of making maps easier to visualize is great! I don't text while driving.  I downloaded ZenDrive's study you mentioned in your blog. It's a great report! It tells me that "phone use behind the wheel is very difficult to measure." I was looking for some statistics on drivers who have used phones while commuting daily from their residence in one state to their workplace in an adjacent state (particularly in the Eastern states) for 20 or more years.

Re: Correlation?
  • 4/20/2017 11:28:53 AM

@tomsg I had the same feeling about NY. But I do know it's a very big state, and just because I notice people on their phones while they're driving around corners in my own neigbhorhood doens't mean that drivers all over the state are doing the same.

Re: Correlation?
  • 4/20/2017 10:10:56 AM

I agree. It seems too low inFL and I think it is also banned. The more meaningful data would be the number of accidents caused by texting in each state.

Re: Correlation?
  • 4/20/2017 9:24:31 AM

I didn't see anything that mentioned the distribution of drivers in the study so that may account for some of the perceived anomalies.  I have a hard time believing FL is that low because I see many drivers on phones every day.  Maybe it's a perception issue though and I just happen to be in areas with high cell phone use but other areas lower our average. 

Mobile Data Coverage
  • 4/20/2017 5:38:49 AM

Overall, mobile data coverage is more conentrated in eastern states. Western states have more cellphone dead zones than in eastern (and mid-west) states.  .


Re: Correlation?
  • 4/19/2017 10:55:34 PM


At first I thought maybe the visualization suggested some correlation between hand-held phone ban laws and the rate of phone use, but then I saw that both Vermont and NJ have bans and are in the highest quintile of offenders. So that blows that theory ...

What's very surprising is the low rate of driver phone usage in all those Western states. Maybe there's a lot of cellphone dead zones because of the huge distances and open spaces? But how could that happen in California, of all places?

Anyway, just to note that in Texas ("my" state) the legislature (currently in session, but nearing its closure thank goodness) has on the table a bill to ban texting while driving. Not all phone use, just texting. So far, it's passed only in the Texas House.


Re: Correlation?
  • 4/19/2017 10:12:07 PM

Interesting because the map doesn't follow any of the usual patterns. I'm intrigued. What is New Hapmshire doing that makes it such a stand-out, even while surrounded by states wtih problems, and being a neighbor of Vermont, the worst offender on the list?

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