What We Do and Do Not Know About Phones and Driving

Many people will soon travel to visit family and friends to celebrate the holidays, and car travel is the most popular transportation option. But the evidence shows it’s becoming more dangerous.

Deaths from traffic accidents increased in 2015 and 2016 after decades of declining, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Administration.

While there is no one explanation, breaking down the details of those fatalities is revealing. In 2016, 36 percent of the people killed were driving or riding in passenger cars, a decrease of 4 percent compared to 2015. Meanwhile, more pedestrians and cyclists were killed. Nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed in 2016, a 9 percent increase and the highest number since 1990. And 840 cyclists were killed, an 11 percent increase and the highest number since 1991.

What’s going on here?

While there are no data to prove it, there are clues in the data that these observed increases are due to more people using smartphones while they are driving. Approximately 75 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones, a 35 percent increase compared with only five years ago. And the vast majority use their smartphones to access the internet and social media platforms, a dramatic shift in how people use their phones. And the data show that in more than half of crashes, drivers were simply driving down a straight road.

But, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration, the number of deaths related to distraction dropped by 2.2 percent in 2016. That drop may be due to a reporting error, according to a review by the National Safety Council, a non-profit, non-political organization. That’s because crash data come from police reports that are generated by hundreds of thousands of law enforcement agencies across the nation. Each agency reports local traffic crash data to their state, which then sends a report to the federal government. If local police officers are unable to find out whether a phone was a factor in the crash, or if they fail to ask the proper questions, the data do not get reported.

The National Safety Council conducted their own review of crash data to learn more about the “distracted driver” label. The council identified 180 crashes that took place between 2009 and 2011 where there was evidence that the driver was using a cell phone. Then it looked up these same accidents in the federal database. Only half of the accidents in the database reported distracted driving as a problem.

“Based on these findings and the inherent difficulty of identifying the true scope of the problem, policymakers should assume that cell phone involvement in crashes is substantially greater than shown by crash statistics when making policy decisions,” the report concluded.

So, what should we do?

The most important solution is a simple one: Make a pledge not to use your phone while driving. This prevents you from becoming a distracted driver and sets an example for other people.

There is also an element of culture change to reject distracted driving. If you heard someone talking about how they had too much to drink and drove home, it is likely that you would show your disapproval in some way. Driving while texting needs to become as taboo as driving while drinking.

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