Mobile phones can track what we say and write, where we go, what we buy, and what we search for on the Internet. But they are not yet used to track one of the biggest threats to public health: accidents caused by drivers distracted by phones.
More than a decade after federal authorities and state governments He took advantage of the dangers posed by cell phone use while driving and began enacting laws to stop it, there is no definitive database on the number of accidents or deaths caused by cell phone distraction. Security experts say current estimates likely underestimate a worsening problem.
The lack of clear data comes as collisions are increasing. Car accidents recorded by police increased 16 percent from 2020 to 2021, from 14,400 to 16,700 per day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2021, almost 43,000 Americans died in accidents, the highest number in 16 years.
In 2021, according to the transit agency, only 377 fatal accidents (just under 1 percent) involved a driver distracted by a cell phone. About 8 percent of the 2.5 million nonfatal crashes that year involved a cell phone, according to highway agency data.
But those numbers don’t reflect all the distractions caused by cell phones; They include only accidents in which a police report specifically mentions such distraction. Often, safety experts said, cell phone use is not mentioned in such reports because it usually depends on a driver admitting to distraction, a witness identifying him or her, or, in even rarer cases, the use of cell phone records. or other phone forensics that definitely show distraction.
Police can access cell phone records, but the process is cumbersome and privacy laws require a subpoena. Even then, more analysis must be performed to link the driver’s phone activity to the time of the accident.
“That analysis is expensive, and unless police really believe there’s a criminal case, they don’t do it,” said Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah and an expert on the science of driver distraction. He added that “unless someone confesses to using the phone, police don’t consider it a factor.”
Security experts said the current data was indeed unscientific and inaccurate.
“This is almost certainly an underestimate, because people don’t like to admit things like that,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of Traffic Safety Research and Advocacy. “It’s very frustrating to me that we don’t have access to better data, especially now that we’re at the highest level in 16 years,” he added, referring to traffic deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration admitted that there was significant underreporting of distractions when it came to accidents. In a statement provided to the New York Times, the agency said it was “actively participating in studies to examine the ability to measure the prevalence of roadside distraction.”
Drivers may not admit to distractions to police, but they do admit to the behavior in anonymous surveys. In a nationally representative survey conducted in 2022, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that about 20 percent of drivers said they regularly browse social media, read emails, play games, watch videos or They recorded and posted while driving.