Report: Cellphones cause far more crashes than recorded

Cellphone use is a factor in far more fatal crashes than anyone realized, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Safety Council.

The council found that even when drivers said they were using their cellphones at the time of a crash that admission was not recorded in accident reports that have been compiled for use in the national debate on distracted driving.

“We believe the number of crashes involving cellphone use is much greater than what is being reported,” said Janet Froetscher, the council’s president. “Many factors, from drivers not admitting cellphone use, to a lack of consistency in crash reports being used to collect data at the scene, make it very challenging to determine an accurate number.”

Researchers reviewed 180 fatal crashes over a three-year period where there was evidence that the driver was using a cellphone. In one of those years, 2011, only 52 percent of the crashes were recorded in the national data base as cellphone-related.

The report also found wide variation among states in their reporting of fatal crashes as cellphone-related. In 2011, Tennessee reported 93 fatalities while New York recorded one and Nevada reported none.

The District reported none in 2010 and one fatal crash related to cellphone use in 2011. Maryland recorded three in 2010 and two in 2011. Virginia reported four in 2010 and six in 2011.

“The public should be aware that cellphone-involved fatal crashes are not accurately being reported,” said Bill Windsor, associate vice president at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, which helped fund the study. “These statistics influence national prevention priorities, funding decisions, media attention, legislation and policy, even vehicle and roadway engineering. There are wide-ranging, negative ramifications to safety if a fatal crash factor is substantially underreported, as appears to be the case of cellphone use in crashes.”

The council estimated that one-quarter of all crashes involved cellphone use.

“We agree with NSC that cellphone-related crashes are underreported and that the level of underreporting varies by state,” said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a coalition of state highway safety officers. “However, we see absolutely no evidence that 25 percent of all crashes involve cellphone use. The most recent [National Highway Traffic Administration] data indicated that 10 percent of all fatal crashes involve distraction, and of those, 1.2 percent are cellphone related. So, even accounting for underreporting, the 25 percent number doesn’t sound plausible.”

The National Transportation Safety Board in 2011 called for a ban on all cellphone use while driving.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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