Distracted Driving Deaths Are Underreported

An analysis of car crash data by the National Safety Council shows that traffic fatalities where drivers were on the phone are seriously underreported. According to the NSC, a nonprofit advocacy organization, the underreporting makes distracted driving seem like less of a problem than it really is, making it more difficult to pass laws that could increase traffic safety.

The safety council’s study, financed in part by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, analyzed data from 180 fatal crashes in the period from 2009 to 2011, where strong evidence existed that the driver was using a cell phone. The group found that in 2011, only half of the crashes were listed as involving cell phone use in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s database of accidents involving the use of cell phones. This was still an improvement from previous years. In 2010 only 35 percent of the accidents were coded as involving cell phone use; in 2009, 8 percent.

Even in cases where drivers told law enforcement officers that they were using a cell phone at the time of the crash, the crashes were recorded as such in the database only half the time. In other cases, the evidence of cell phone use did not emerge until later. In one case, a teen driver’s last words to her friend during a cell phone call were that she was going to crash. The driver hit a snow bank and was propelled into a lane of oncoming traffic. She died shortly afterwards at a hospital. Police at the scene attributed the crash to an inexperienced driver, not to cell phone use, as the phone ended up in the back of the car and was not found until later.

The database maintained by the safety administration lists 32,000 traffic fatalities in 2011, but only 385 of those are listed as involving cell phone use. The safety council believes the number is much greater. According to the group, there are many factors that contribute to the underreporting, including inconsistency in the way data are collected at crash scenes and the fact that drivers may be reluctant to admit cell phone use.

Researchers rely on the safety administration’s database, but it is dependent on state data collected from police reports. According to the safety council, many people assume that because it is a federal database, the data are standardized, but in fact the data may have been gathered according to varying local standards.

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