Friday, May 17, 2013
Are Cell Phones to Blame for Increasing Crash Rates
In recent years, as highway fatalities and crash rates have been reaching historic lows, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) pointed to improvements in car safety, public education, increased seatbelt use and other reasons for the decline. But in 2012, highway fatalities began increasing for the first time in seven years and NHTSA has yet to suggest a cause.
However, a new report by the National Safety Council and Nationwide Insurance suggests that it may be due to the increasing prevalence of distracted driving crashes caused by cell phone use, something the National Safety Council report says is vastly underreported in NHTSA's data.
Based on risk and the prevalence of cell phone use, as reported by research and NHTSA, the National Safety Council estimates that 25 percent of all crashes involve cell phone use.
The NSC analysis, funded in part by Nationwide Insurance, reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011, where evidence indicated driver cell phone use. Of these fatal crashes, in 2011 only 52 percent were coded in the national data as involving cell phone use.
"We believe the number of crashes involving cell phone use is much greater than what is being reported," said Janet Froetscher president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "Many factors, from drivers not admitting cell phone use, to a lack of consistency in crash reports being used to collect data at the scene, make it very challenging to determine an accurate number."
Even when drivers admitted cell phone use during a fatal crash, the Council's analysis found that in about one-half of these cases, the crash was not coded in Federal data (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatal Analysis Reporting System). In addition, there are an unknown number of cases in which cell phone use involvement in crashes is impossible to determine. One example would be a driver reading an email or text message on a phone who dies in a crash without any witnesses.
The findings suggest that the small number of crashes actually reported
by each state, as seen in the map above, is unrealistically low.
The report also brings up large differences in cell phone distraction fatal crashes reported by states. For instance, in 2011, Tennessee reported 93 fatal crashes that involved cell phone use, but New York, a state with a much larger population, reported only one. Texas reported 40, but its neighboring state Louisiana reported none.
"The public should be aware that cell phone-involved fatal crashes are not accurately being reported," said Bill Windsor , associate vice president of consumer safety at Nationwide. "These statistics influence national prevention priorities, funding decisions, media attention, legislation and policy, even vehicle and roadway engineering. There are wide-ranging, negative ramifications to safety if a fatal crash factor is substantially under-reported, as appears to be the case of cell phone use in crashes."
In 2010, NSC attempted to estimate the extent of under-reporting of fatal crashes involving cell phones. NSC identified 121 fatal crashes in which driver cell phone use was identified but only 30 percent were classified as "distracted driving" crashes in the reported statistics. Thus, about 70 percent of these crashes involving cell phones were not reflected in the annual figures.