Time Well Spent//

Smartphones May Be Leading to More Traffic Deaths Than the Government Realizes

Federal records don't tell the whole story, according to a new report.

More Americans are being killed in smartphone-related traffic crashes than official numbers can tally, according to a thorough and eye-opening new report from Bloomberg.

Reporters Kyle Stock, Lance Lambert and David Ingold write that official records show that U.S. traffic fatalities have increased by 14.4 percent over the past two years. “In 2016 alone, more than 100 people died every day in or near vehicles in America, the first time the country has passed that grim toll in a decade,” they write.

None of the usual suspects, like increased time on the road or drinking and driving, fully account for that spike. But the surge in fatalities parallels increases in smartphone ownership: the number of Americans who own a smartphone rose from 75 percent to 81 percent from 2014 to 2016, they write. And we’re using our phones a lot differently today than we did just three years ago, spending less time speaking and more time scrolling, swiping or sharing—activities that are distracting even if you’re not driving a car.

That specific type of distraction could help explain why the “increase in fatalities has been largely among bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians,” the reporters write, people who are easy to miss if you’re looking down at your phone behind the wheel.

Here’s where it gets complicated. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, only 448 traffic deaths in 2015 were caused by smartphone distraction, which accounts for a meager 1.4 percent of overall traffic fatalities. “By that measure,” the Bloomberg team writes, “drunk driving is 23 times more deadly than using a phone while driving, though studies have shown that both activities behind the wheel constitute (on average) a similar level of impairment.” The Safety Administration has yet to release its 2016 data, but Bloomberg reports that the agency said “deaths tied to distraction actually declined last year.”

According to experts interviewed by the reporters, that’s simply not true. “Honestly I think the real number of fatalities tied to cell phones is at least three times the federal figure,” Jennifer Smith, who formed the nonprofit lobbying group Stopdistractions.org after her mother was killed in a crash by a phone-distracted driver, told Bloomberg. “We’re all addicted and the scale of this is unheard of.”

Part of this discrepancy comes from how difficult it is to gather data on cell phone use and driving, which is getting harder as people turn to texting services—many of which are encrypted—rather than calling people. While it’s already illegal for drivers “to use a handheld phone at all in 15 states, and texting while driving is specifically barred in 47 states,” the Bloomberg team writes, each state reports accidents differently, making the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s job that much harder. Right now, only 11 states have accident reporting forms with a field for mobile-phone distraction, the reporters write.

Bloomberg points to Zendrive, a startup in San Francisco that analyzes smartphone driving data, which found the problem of distracted driving is a lot worse than government measures say it is. Zendrive studied data from 3 million drivers and found that people used their phones during a whopping 88 percent of their journeys. The Bloomberg reporters note that the real number might be even higher as Zendrive didn’t account for “hands free technology, which is also considered dangerous.” Jonathan Matus, co-founder and chief executive officer of Zendrive told Bloomberg, “Pretty much everybody is using their phone while driving.”

Part of the issue with passing legislation to make the roads safer and making smartphone distracting driving more socially unacceptable is the ubiquity of mobile phones. You probably don’t always stop your friends from reaching for their phone while driving, even if you know it’s unsafe, but you’ve probably been taught not to get into a car with someone who’s been drinking.

Smith, the safety advocate, told Bloomberg that it’s a catch 22: “we all know what’s going on, but we don’t have a breathalyzer for a phone.”

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told Bloomberg that “it’s hard to ban something that we all do, and we know that we want to do,” adding that “it is still acceptable, and that’s the problem.”

Read more on Bloomberg. 

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