Smartphone Use Behind the Wheel Much Deadlier Than the Data Shows
Smartphone Use Behind the Wheel Much Deadlier Than the Data Shows

Crash data shows smartphones were a factor in just over 1% of traffic fatalities in 2015. But other evidence points toward distracted driving as a leading cause of traffic-related deaths, which have surged in recent years.

For several decades, traffic fatalities were on the decline in the U.S. However, over the past two years, traffic fatalities increased by 14.4%. In 2016, more than 100 people died everyday in traffic-related accidents.

Data shows that people are driving slightly longer distances, and speeding and drunk driving have gone up just slightly over the past two years. However, experts say these factors cannot explain the dramatic increase in traffic deaths since 2015.

The Rise of Smartphones

However, what has increased in the past few years are drivers’ relationships with their smartphones. For one, smartphone ownership has increased overall. From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of Americans who owned a smartphone increased from 75% to 81%. Furthermore, Americans are using their devices for far more than simply making phone calls. From 2015 to 2017, the share of Americans who used their phones for social media rose from 70% to 80%. Using your phone to make a call while driving is distracting enough. Using one or both hands to actually type on your device, as well as diverting your eyes from the road to look at your screen, is a recipe for disaster.

Further evidence pointing toward smartphone usage for the increase in traffic fatalities is the nature of the rising fatalities. The U.S. has seen a significant increase in pedestrian, bicyclist and motorcyclist fatalities over the past three years. Last year, 5,987 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roadways. This is a 22% increase from 2014. Bicyclist and motorcyclist fatalities both rose by roughly 15% during the same timeframe. Obviously pedestrians and bicyclists are much easier to miss by distracted drivers than are vehicles, so it is safe to deduct that smartphone distraction has played a role in this increase.

Is the Data on Distracted Driving Deaths Accurate?

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, smartphones were only a factor in 448 traffic deaths in 2015. By that data, smartphones only accounted for 1.4% of all traffic fatalities. In contrast, drunk driving accounted for nearly 30% of traffic deaths. With research showing smartphone use behind the wheel being about equally dangerous as drunk driving, how could there be such a large discrepancy?

According to a National Safety Council (NSC) study, only about half of fatal crashes caused by smartphone use were recorded as such in NHTSA databases. Additionally, a study by Zendrive Inc., a San Francisco data analysis company, found in a study of 3 million people, drivers use their mobile devices during 88% of trips. This study did not even include “hands-free” uses of phones, so the real number is likely higher.

Why Doesn’t the Data Point to Smartphones?

The issue partly lies within the reporting mechanism. The NHTSA gets its crash data from states, each of which has its own method for recording crash data. The states obtain their reports from their local police departments, and only 11 states have reporting forms with a field for police to categorize the cause of a crash as “mobile phone distraction.” Another 27 states have the option to report “distraction” in general as a cause.

When it comes to investigating crashes and prosecuting offenders, many police departments put more emphasis on driving under the influence than on distracted driving. The fact remains that it is difficult to determine whether a smartphone was in use during a crash. Moreover, proving distracted driving in court might involve obtaining the suspect’s phone records, which requires a court order. Even then, the records will likely only show calling and texting activity. If the driver was browsing Facebook, that can be difficult to prove. If police can provide more solid evidence for another factor—drinking or speeding, for example—prosecutors are unlikely to pursue distracted driving as a cause.

What’s the Solution?

For one, more accurate reporting of distracted driving deaths is needed. Crash investigations need to catch up with the times and focus on distraction as a real and likely cause. Additionally, police departments should have the option to report smartphone use as a potential cause of an accident. If law enforcement and government officials can get accurate data on the true scope of the problem, there will be greater opportunity for reform.

Additionally, better technology is needed to determine whether drivers were using their phones at the time of a crash. The state of New York is currently considering a bill that would allow police to use “Textalyzer” technology. This software would analyze a driver’s phone after an accident for any recent activity. However, the software is still in development phases, and there are obvious privacy concerns to consider with such technology.

Part of the issue is cultural. We all know distracted driving is dangerous. Yet, an overwhelming amount of drivers continue to do it, and it has yet to become a subject as taboo as drinking and driving. For instance, if you told a room full of people that you regularly drink a case of beer before getting behind the wheel, most of them would be appalled. Driving under the influence is no longer a socially accepted practice. We understand the devastating effects this behavior can have. On the other hand, telling that same group of people that you text while driving is unlikely to elicit the same level of outrage. Greater awareness and education is needed to shift the cultural perception of distracted driving.

“Smartphone use behind the wheel is a clear public safety crisis facing our nation. It’s time to treat it like the serious threat that it is,” said Attorney Walter Clark, founder of Walter Clark Legal Group.

Our firm has been handling personal injury cases throughout the California Low Desert and High Desert communities for over 30 years. With a 95% success rate, the California personal injury attorneys at Walter Clark Legal Group will fight to hold those responsible for your loss accountable and win compensation to cover medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. If you have been injured in an auto accident and want to discuss your legal options, contact us today for a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer. We have offices in Indio, Rancho Mirage, Victorville, and Yucca Valley and represent clients through the entire California Low Desert and High Desert communities.

DISCLAIMER: The Walter Clark Legal Group blog is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal or medical advice. References to laws are based on general legal practices and vary by location. Information reported comes from secondary news sources. We do handle these types of cases, but whether or not the individuals and/or loved ones involved in these accidents choose to be represented by a law firm is a personal choice we respect. Should you find any of the information incorrect, we welcome you to contact us with corrections.

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