Driving is a seemingly innocuous part of modern life and, for many, has become second nature. But because driving comes so easy we often forget how dangerous it can be. Too often people drive impaired or get distracted behind the wheel.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which recently released its latest projections for 2022 traffic fatalities, an estimated 31,785 people were killed in traffic crashes in the first nine months of last year – just a slight decrease from the 31,850 estimated deaths that occurred during the same period in 2021. 

Traffic crashes are deadly and impose an enormous financial strain on American society. A separate NHTSA study put the cost of vehicle crashes at $340 billion, based on 2019 crash data. 

“This report drives home just how devastating traffic crashes are for families and the economic burden they place on society,” Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s acting administrator, said in a statement.

The report on the economic impact of crashes also touched on the risky driving behaviors that lead to crashes, fatalities, serious injuries and property damage.

Here is a breakdown of the riskiest behaviors based on reports released by the NHTSA in 2023 and 2022.

Key Highlights
  • About 28 people in the United States die in drunk-driving crashes every day.
  • More than 50% of drivers involved in serious injury and fatal crashes tested positive for at least one drug.
  • Distracted driving led to 10,546 fatalities, 1.3 million nonfatal injuries and $98.2 billion in economic costs in 2019.
  • Around 47% of passengers killed in 2019 in crashes were not wearing seat belts.
  • Speeding killed 9,478 people in 2019.
  • There were 697 drowsy-driving-related crashes in 2019.

Table of contents

Risky driving behavior No. 1: Drunk driving

According to the NHTSA, about 28 people in the United States die in drunk-driving crashes every day. That adds up to one person every 52 minutes dying in preventable crashes. In 2019, 10,142 people died in drunken-driving crashes.

“Alcohol impairment is scientifically shown to reduce driver response times and reaction times, thereby greatly increasing the potential for a crash,” says Sam Morrissey, former executive director of Urban Movement Labs, a nonprofit working to design and deploy transportation technology. “There have been many years of evolving policies to reduce the instances of this behavior, and it is a combination of stricter enforcement and serious penalties.”

Even in small amounts, alcohol can affect a driver’s reaction time and driving ability. As alcohol is ingested, it passes into the bloodstream and accumulates before being metabolized by the liver. The NHTSA says alcohol level is measured by the weight of the alcohol in a certain volume of blood, which is called Blood Alcohol Concentration, or BAC.

Driving while under the influence of alcohol can lead to serious penalties. If you are convicted of a DUI, you may lose your driving privileges and your auto insurance policy could be canceled. Additionally, your car insurance rates may go up after a DUI, costing an average of $1,163 more a year.

Risky driving behavior No. 2: Drug-impaired driving

It’s illegal in the U.S. to drive under the influence of alcohol, but also marijuana, opioids, methamphetamines, cocaine, or any other impairing drug – illicit, prescribed or over-the-counter.

More than 50% of drivers involved in serious injury and fatal crashes tested positive for at least one drug, the NHTSA says. Its 2020 study of serious or fatally injured road users suggests that the prevalence of alcohol, cannabinoids and opioids increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are the effects of common drugs:

  • Alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs slow coordination, judgment and reaction times.
  • Cocaine and methamphetamine can make drivers more aggressive and reckless.
  • Using two or more drugs together can compound the impairing effects of each drug.
  • Some prescription and OTC medicines can cause extreme drowsiness and dizziness.
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The Governors Highway Safety Association has a map featuring drug-impaired driving laws across the country.

Risky driving behavior No. 3: Distracted driving

Distracted driving is another risky behavior. But it goes beyond texting and handheld cell phone usage – it can be talking to people in your vehicle, eating and drinking or using your vehicle’s entertainment or navigation system.

And distracted driving is dangerous — it resulted in the deaths of 3,142 people in 2020, according to the NHTSA. Texting is the largest culprit – sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for five seconds, which, at 55 mph, is like driving across a football field with your eyes closed.

Most states – 47 states plus the District of Columbia – have laws against texting. If you receive a ticket for texting and driving, it’s likely to drive up your auto insurance rates.

Read about the penalties for talking and texting on a cell phone while driving

Risky driving behavior No. 4: Not using seat belts

Drivers and passengers who fail to buckle up when they get into a car face high risks in the event of a crash – 47% of passenger vehicle occupants who were killed in 2019 in crashes were not wearing seat belts. And 55% of those killed during nighttime in 2019 were unrestrained.

The NHTSA says that buckling up is the most effective way to protect yourself in a crash. Seat belts keep you from being ejected from a vehicle and are designed to work with airbags, protecting passengers and drivers in the event of a crash.

Risky driving behavior No. 5: Speeding

Speeding is a top contributor to crashes along America’s roadways and is a type of aggressive driving, which has been on the rise. Speeding killed 9,478 people in 2019, according to the NHTSA.

“While there are specific penalties for driving at very high speeds, typically referred to as reckless driving, there is absolutely not the level of policy and penalties as there are for impaired driving,” Morrissey says. “While there are usually point systems assigned to state driver’s licenses, the structure and frequency of penalties almost guarantee that only the most egregious drivers would face the stiffest penalties. Meanwhile, speed-related crashes continue, and fatality rates on our roadways continue to increase.”

Here are the NHTSA’s consequences of speeding:

  • Increased potential for loss of vehicle control.
  • Reduced effectiveness of occupant protection equipment.
  • Increased stopping distance.
  • Increased degree of crash severity.
  • Economic implications of a speed-related crash.
  • Increased fuel consumption/cost.

Speeding can affect your auto insurance rates as well – drivers will pay rates of 22% to 30% higher premiums on average following a speeding ticket – and these rates could be in effect for three years. A speeding ticket could also result in a driver losing their safe driving discount, which will increase your rate.

Risky driving behavior No. 6: Drowsy driving

Drowsy driving is another risky driving behavior and can lead to impaired cognition and performance and motor vehicle crashes. There were 697 drowsy-driving-related crashes in 2019, according to the NHTSA. Furthermore, it estimates that in 2017, 91,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers, leading to an estimated 50,000 injured and nearly 800 deaths.

Young drivers, who lack the experience and judgment to break for a rest, are the most likely to have fallen asleep at the wheel, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Here are the three most common factors in drowsy-driving crashes:

  • They occur most frequently between midnight and 6 a.m. or late afternoon.
  • They often involve only a single driver (and no passengers) running off the road at a high rate of speed with no evidence of braking.
  • Crashes frequently occur on rural roads and highways.

Resources & Methodology


NHTSA Releases 2020 Traffic Crash Data

NHTSA Distracted Driving Dangers and Statistics

NHTSA Seat Belt Safety Guide

NHTSA Drowsy Driving: How to Avoid Falling Asleep Behind the Wheel

NHTSA Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities for the First 9 Months (January–September) of 2022

NHTSA The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2019

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Executive Editor

Laura is an award-winning editor with experience in content and communications covering auto insurance and personal finance. She has written for several media outlets, including the USA Today Network. She most recently worked in the public sector for the Nevada Department of Transportation.