Cellphone use causing car accidents is higher than ever, but proving these car accidents are caused by cellphones and driving is as difficult as curbing it
Are car accident injuries and fatalities caused by the combination of cellphones and driving across the U.S. at an all-time high today?
But also no.
Federal data showing car crashes are caused by distracted driving and cellphone use behind the wheel is either under-reported or not easy obtainable, according to a recent Bloomberg story. This Bloomberg report is completely consistent with what I see in the trenches every day as a car accident lawyer. The practical reality is that unless there is a fatality involved, police almost never do a cellphone download or even check to see if cellphone use — texting and distracted driving — played a causal role in a crash.
Another example, this one from the Bloomberg story, is that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported that in 2015, a mere 448 auto auto accident-related deaths were linked to cellphones and driving. That’s just 1.4% of all traffic fatalities. Further, although the NHTSA hasn’t yet released its 2016 data, it said that deaths tied to distracted driving actually declined last year.
That’s just absurd, when you consider that the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center data reports that car accident fatalities from distracted driving-related auto accidents in Michigan increased approximately 50% from 2015 to 2016 — from 28 to 42 fatalities.
Or how about that the Michigan State Police data reports that distracted driving-related fatalities increased approximately 200% from 2014 to 2016 – from 14 to 42 fatalities?
And how does any of this reconcile with the science that shows that if you are texting while driving a motor vehicle, you are 23 times more likely to crash, and that texting while driving has been shown to be as dangerous — or even more dangerous — than drunk driving?
The answer is that the NHTSA data is flawed because the number of car accidents caused by cellphones and driving is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve seen a staggering increase in my own cases throughout Michigan caused by cellphones and driving. As we all know as drivers around this state, there is always a constant glow of cellphone screens coming from the driver’s seats in the cars around us when we drive at night. And we all see people in our rear-view mirror looking down instead of ahead.
The problem has gotten so bad that I recently taught two legal seminars on teaching car accident lawyers how to download cellphones to prove people are driving distracted and texting while driving instead of watching the road.
The real problem with the NHTSA data is that while we are in the midst of a cellphone and driving safety crisis that has caused huge spikes in car accident injuries and deaths, the NHTSA data downplays just how big a crisis this is. That just makes it even harder for police departments, such as in cities like Detroit, to want to take the extra step of investigating whether a cellphone played a role in causing a non-fatal wreck. In other words, it seems to continue to perpetuate the chronic under-reporting of how rampant cellphone use while driving is in causing so many of the crashes I see as an accident lawyer.
Methodology for gathering fatality info from cellphones and driving is varied
The thing is, even the Bloomberg report makes this same point about why the NHTSA data is flawed:
“[I]ts tally of mobile phone-related deaths is only as good as the data it gets from individual states, each of which has its own methods for diagnosing and detailing the cause of a crash. Each state in turn relies on its various municipalities to compile crash metrics — and they often do things differently, too. … Only 11 states use reporting forms that contain a field for police to tick-off mobile-phone distraction, while 27 have a space to note distraction in general as a potential cause of the accident.”
Meanwhile, Bloomberg says, the National Safety Council found that only about half of fatal crashes tied to known cellphone use were coded as such in NHTSA databases.
That might explain the lopsided results.
For instance, Tennessee’s accident report form asks police:
“[T]o evaluate both distractions in general and mobile phones in particular. Of the 448 accidents involving a phone in 2015 as reported by NHTSA, 84 occurred in Tennessee. That means, a state with 2 percent of the country’s population accounted for 19 percent of its phone-related driving deaths. As in polling, it really depends on how you ask the question.”
The question wouldn’t need to be asked any differently, though, if law enforcement was more aggressive in investigating whether cellphone use is behind the car accident they are investigating. It certainly helps, and new technology such as the textalyzer that they are debating in New York State will also help. But what we need most is for law enforcement in every state to catch up with the dangers of technology and the ubiquitous nature of cellphones and driving — and come up with a more uniform way to investigate and prevent distracted driving.
Let’s look at our Michigan.
Despite Michigan’s efforts to come up with a harsher distracted driving law — one that would mirror most of Washington state’s recently enacted law — we seem to come up way short when it comes to implementing the laws we already have. Michigan’s laws outlaw texting and driving, but out of an estimated 2.5 million Michigan drivers estimated to text and drive, fewer than 3,000 or so tickets have been issued annually for texting and driving.
Communication platforms changing rapidly
Adding to the national data trouble is how “mobile phone traffic continues to shift away from simple voice calls and texts to encrypted social networks,” meaning “officials increasingly have less of a clue than ever before”:
“By 2015, almost 70 percent of Americans were using their phones to share photos and follow news events via social media. In just two additional years, that figure has jumped to 80 percent.”
Then there’s a study from Zendrive Inc., a San Francisco startup that analyzes cellphone data to help insurers of commercial fleets assess safety risks. It found that 3 million drivers used their cellphone during 88 percent of their trips. But Zendrive didn’t include instances when phones were mounted in a fixed position for hands-free communication — and who knows if texting or social media posting was part of that.
How can we get true numbers for accidents and fatalities from cellphones and driving?
The best way to get accurate numbers on distracted driving accidents would be for all police accident forms to have boxes that indicate cellphone distraction as the cause of the crash. At least then these crashes won’t get thrown into the gray zone of the unhelpful “general” category and would give the NHTSA pieces of the broader picture it had been missing.
Jennifer Smith of Stopdistractions.org, a nonprofit lobbying and support group, summed it up best when she told Bloomberg:
“Honestly, I think the real number of fatalities tied to cellphones is at least three times the federal figure. We’re all addicted and the scale of this is unheard of.”
Having those numbers would make for a truer picture of how serious distracted driving is. But it would only be one part of the solution to accidents caused by smartphones and driving.
What we really need are stronger laws with more serious penalties in place.
We need drivers to understand that distracted driving is completely preventable. The new iPhone iOS 11 even has a feature to disable texting capability while behind the wheel, and there are other anti-distracted driving apps out on the market.
And we need to make cellphones and driving socially unacceptable. As Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told Bloomberg:
“I use the cocktail party example. If you’re at a cocktail party and say, ‘I was so hammered the other day, and I got behind the wheel,’ people will be outraged. But if you say the same thing about using a cellphone, it won’t be a big deal. It is still acceptable, and that’s the problem.”