Distracted Driving: How Serious a Threat is it on the Roads?

While traffic deaths have increased again, the causes of the increase are uncertain, leading to a need for more accurate crash reports

For drivers on the roads of Illinois, there are many hazards. There are alcohol and drug impaired drivers. There are fatigued drivers. There are speeding drivers, driving too fast for conditions and there are drivers who are daydreaming, talking to passengers, dealing with children in the backseat and many, many other sources of distraction.

But one item that comes to mind the most when worrying about distracted drivers is cellphone use. Whether talking, texting, surfing the web, updating their Facebook page, smartphones, which in reality are cell-connected, internet-enabled, computers that fit in our pockets, are the latest threat to the safety of all motorists.

Do we really know how many crashes are caused by distraction?

We read anecdotal stories of crashes caused by texting and other cellphone use. The U.S. Department of Transportation created a website to catalog the dangers of cellphone use, with heartbreaking stories of families who have lost mothers, fathers and children in distracted driving crashes.

Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) official statistics for 2014 indicate that there were 3,179 fatalities attributable to distracted driving. By contrast, alcohol is involved in crashes that result in more than 10,000 deaths every year. The DOT also reports that in December of 2014, text messages were averaging 169.3 billion per month, or about 65,000 every second of every hour of every day.

Research has found that sending a text message is similar to driving with your eyes closed for five seconds and that it causes impairment like that of alcohol intoxication. Given all of this, shouldn't there be more crashes reported involving distracted drivers?

We don't know what we don't know

The National Safety Council noticed this discrepancy and examined 180 fatal crashes that occurred between 2008 and 2011. They released the results of that analysis in 2013 and found that only about 50 percent of the crashes from 2011 noted the involvement of a phone and that was better than 2008 when only 8 percent were accurately coded for involving a cellphone.

The report pointed to huge discrepancies in state-to-state reporting. Tennessee listed 93 fatal crashes in 2011, while California, with six times the population, only had 22. Much of this is a reporting issue. If it is not obvious, as in cases where a phone displays a text message or an open Facebook screen, police responding to the crash may not look for that information.

Most drivers are unlikely to admit to that level of negligence and in many cases, the driver who was texting or otherwise distracted may be severely injured or killed and unable to provide that information. Until recently, there may not have been a listing on the accident report for cellphone use, distraction or texting, and when it comes to data collection, what is asked is often what is answered.

30 percent increase in traffic fatalities in 2015

Traffic fatalities had been falling for decades, as cars and highways were made safer and drunk driving laws had become ever more strict. During the Great Recession, traffic fatalities dipped to the lowest point on record, dating back to the Truman Administration in the late 1940s.

However, that changed in 2015. The U.S. experienced the sharpest increase in traffic deaths in 50 years. And the first six months of 2016 witnessed additional increases. The final numbers are not in, but 2016 is likely to exceed the death toll of the previous year.

What is the cause?

The increase has been attributed to a stronger economy, with more people having jobs and needing to drive to work. There is also more commercial traffic moving those goods around. Inexpensive gas induces people to drive more. And there is smartphone distraction.

Again, because the statistics are imprecise and often lag by years, we cannot know for certain but increases in cellphone ownership and specific statistics, like increases in pedestrian deaths, suggest that some of that overall increase is likely due to more cellphone-induced distraction.

One report from Minnesota showed an alarming increase, from 17 pedestrian deaths in 2014 to 60 deaths in 2016. Cars have more electronic devices and internet connectivity, which can increase driver inattention and distraction. If you have been injured in any collision or crash involving a motor vehicle, your attorney should thoroughly investigate whether distraction of any type played a role in your injuries.

As a nation, we need better, more accurate numbers to be able to fully identify the cause of this troubling increase. Last year, traffic deaths could approach 40,000 for the first time in more than a decade. This year, it could be even worse.