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More evidence that smartphones and driving don’t mix

Cambridge Mobil Telematics (CMT) has released new data showing that phone distraction occurred during 52 percent of trips that resulted in a crash. (iStock)

New data collected from thousands of drivers suggest that more than half of all trips that ended in a crash also included some form of distraction from a mobile phone.

The data also found that in nearly a quarter of crashes, the driver was using a phone within a minute before the crash occurred, and perhaps even at the moment of the crash.

The data – collected by Cambridge Mobile Telematics from hundreds of thousands of drivers using its app  – appear to strengthen the view that smartphones have made the nation’s highways more dangerous. The data also suggest that none of the laws that have been enacted so far have made a dent in the problem.

And yet the company, not unlike others that promote the use of driving apps, suggests that the technology that got us into this mess could get us out of it. I wish I could believe that.

The report comes as safety advocates raise alarms about increased traffic fatalities, but debate the factors behind the increase. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety say the recent increase in fatalities follows a predictable cycle: they attribute much of the increase to cheap fuel and a bustling economy nearly 10 years after the Great Recession contributed to a decline in traffic fatalities.

Is distracted driving to blame for rise in traffic deaths? Insurance institute doesn’t think so.

Others – including officials at the National Safety Council – have questioned whether the growing death toll can be explained sufficiently by a strong economy only. Yet they too acknowledge that the hard evidence linking smartphones to traffic fatalities is lacking.

Meanwhile, every other week seems to bring news of a deadly crash likely caused by a distracted driver and a smartphone. The latest involves the March 29 crash between a pickup and a small church bus that killed 13 people on a rural road about 75 miles from San Antonio.

A witness told the Associated Press that he was following the pickup before the crash and that the vehicle appeared to be traveling so erratically that the witness alerted authorities. After the crash, the 20-year-old driver – identified as Jack D. Young – told witness Jody Kuchler that he had been texting, the AP reports.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was texting,’” Kuchler was quoted by the AP as saying. “I said, “Son, do you know what you just did? He said, ‘I’m sorry I’m sorry.’”

New data on highway deaths suggests Congress needs to revisit speed limits, some advocates say

Of course, the young man’s sorry — just as wireless providers, smartphone makers and automakers and lawmakers are sorry. It’s just that sorry isn’t enough.

And neither, apparently, are laws. Although 37 states have banned all mobile phone use by new drivers and teens, CMT’s data suggest that drivers in states with anti-cellphone laws still spend plenty of time on the phone. In states that ban all handheld mobile phone use, drivers spend an average of 3.17 minutes on the phone per 100 miles of driving, compared with 3.82 minutes in states that have no such laws. In states that ban the use for drivers who are under the age of 18, the average is 3.25 minutes.

Rocket scientist says gadge could end distracted driving if smartphone companies went along

But CMT – a Massachusetts-based company founded by former MIT professors and others – also believes the smartphone could modify driving behavior, too, by making us better drivers. The company — whose apps accumulate driver data in six categories, including phone use while driving, speeding, braking, acceleration, cornering and time of driving — says sharing that information with users makes them better drivers.

“Distracted driving due to smartphone use is intuitively blamed for the increase in road crashes and claims,” CMT’s chief technology officer Hari Balakrishnan said in a statement. “What’s less intuitive is that smartphones hold the solution to the problem they created. Drivers now have access to tools that analyze their driving and achieve real behavioral change through immediate and ongoing feedback.”

The company said its DriveWell service, by gathering the data and giving drivers feedback,  has reduced phone distraction by 35 percent after a month and by 40 percent after two months.

That’s better than nothing. To me it seems, however, as if the government and big business – namely, automakers, and wireless communications companies  – are simply bowing to public convenience. They know how addicted we are to smartphones and how much people would howl if measures were taken to shut them down while driving.

And so we continue to pack more technological goodies into our phones and vehicles alike, perhaps hoping that the driverless car will be settle the problem in a few years. In the meantime, we’re happy to continue road-testing all this technology, whether it’s supposed to guide our journey or keep our boredom at bay, while using real people instead of crashtest dummies. It seems like it’s almost as cynical as the calculations that kept the Pinto on the road. But there’s probably an app for that.

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