How Serious Is Distracted Driving Compared to Drunk Driving?

Drunk driving and distracted driving are hazardous behaviors posing huge risks on American roads. They can result in severe accidents, causing injuries, property damage, and fatalities. But how do they compare to one another? Which one is more dangerous? The Whalen Injury Lawyers team answers your questions below:

Drunk Driving

Drunk driving involves driving while intoxicated with a blood alcohol content level of 0.08 and above. Statistics from NHTSA show that 10,142 deaths occurred in 2019 due to drunk driving. Drunk driving has various negative cognitive effects on the driver, including reduced concentration, poor hand-eye coordination, and poor judgment. The dangers of drunk driving are well known.

Distracted Driving

Distracted driving occurs when a driver does things that remove their attention from the driving role. Generally, the three forms of distracted driving are manual, visual, and cognitive.

Manual distraction occurs when the driver removes their hands from the wheel to perform activities like eating, rummaging through a bag, or talking on the phone. Visual distraction involves looking away from the road when driving—at the radio, at a phone, at other people or things inside and outside the vehicle. Cognitive distractions are those activities that remove the driver's mind from focusing on driving, including cell phone use.

How Serious Is Distracted Driving Compared to Drunk Driving?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 3522 people died due to accidents caused by distracted driving. Remarkably, but perhaps not surprisingly, the NHTSA observes that texting while driving is six times more dangerous than drunk driving as it comprises manual, visual, and cognitive distractions.

Comparing the Impact on Driving Abilities

  • Cognitive impairment: While distracted driving removes the driver’s attention from the road, drunk driving impacts the driver’s mental and physical abilities, even when the driver may be trying to concentrate very hard on the roadway. In both situations, however, a driver lacks complete control of their vehicle.
  • Visual impairment: In distracted driving, a driver actively removes their eyes from the road while driving or even passively fails to visually register objects or events on the roadway even when looking at the road due to the cognitive disruption that occurs when a driver’s brain is concentrating on the distraction rather than the roadway. Alcohol, on the other hand, has a dangerous effect on a driver’s bodily functions including altering vision that prevents a driver from seeing properly or from keeping a proper lookout. In both cases, with reduced visual abilities, the chances of getting involved in a crash are higher.
  • Manual impairment: Manual impairment involves the driver taking their hands off the wheel while driving. In distracted driving, the driver actively completes other tasks like texting or eating instead of fully engaging in the task of driving. On the other hand, drunk driving impairs a driver's motor skills and can cause him or her to lose wheel-controlling abilities, even if the driver is fully trying to engage in the task of driving or attempting to control the vehicle.

Legal Consequences and Penalties

Both distracted driving and drunk driving attract harsh criminal penalties, ranging from hefty fines to lengthy jail terms or both. Further, civil liability for causing injuries or death because of drunk driving or distracted driving can result in massive exposure to damages, including punitive or exemplary damages.


Drunk driving and distracted driving can result in serious and catastrophic injuries to other motorists. If you have been seriously injured by a person who was driving distracted or driving drunk, the Colorado personal injury lawyers at Whalen Injury Lawyers can help you seek recovery of your damages. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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