Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

2:00 PM --AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are putting some public relations muscle behind the dangers of distracted driving. This filled me with hope because it has been difficult to find hard data on distracted driving fatalities. The way such things are reported varies wildly from state to state, so the awareness has skyrocketed, but the data is still scarce.

Survey data about distracted driving is available, though. Late last year a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was able to estimate, based on driver responses, that in 2010, around 9 percent of the vehicles on the road had a driver using some type of phone (either hand-held or handsfree). Less than 1 percent of drivers that year were estimated to be visually manipulating a digital device or texting. We can assume the problem is worse now.

But, again, one thing I can't lock onto is data that directly shows how many fatal car crashes annually can be directly attributed to someone texting or talking while driving. The awareness campaigns are nice, but they aren't producing any meaningful research, and I'm skeptical that such efforts really work, given our tendency to tune out corporate moralizing.

Distracted driving is a growing problem, but nowhere near the biggest threat on our roadways. A look at actual traffic fatalities and what causes them shows that:

  • The number of fatal car crashes each year has been falling steadily since 2005. In 2011, motor vehicle deaths reached a 60-year low.
  • About 30 percent of all car crash fatalities, no matter what year you check, involved a driver who was legally drunk.

The alcohol-related fatality stats are fascinating given that the awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving is arguably higher now than at any other point in the past two decades.

Of course, texting-while-driving is a still a problem. But in the context of keeping people safe behind the wheel, we have a much bigger killer on the road, and we're going out of our way to ignore it.

— Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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DCITDave 12/5/2012 | 5:23:36 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

I did exactly what you said. The longer term trend here is that we'll eventually tune out and ignore messages about driving safety and some consistent percentage of accidents will occur for the same reasons over and over again.

No more is that apparent than in examing how alcohol-related deaths, which should be less than five percent IF consumer awareness via media and ease-of-preventability factored in at all.

I'm simply saying that money spent educating about driving distractions goes so far but you quickly hit a law of diminishing returns and it begins to, in my opinion, be a total waste.

Thanks for reading.

andrew_ 12/5/2012 | 5:23:36 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

Nice to see you raising this broader topic here... however I have to take issue with your implied conclusion that drink-driving is the main problem so we shouldn't worry about distracted driving as much.

Alcohol-related accidents have actually steadily *decreased* in recent years (from 13,491 in 2006 to 10,228 in 2010). If you focus on the percentage of all accidents this isn't obvious as there has been greater improvement in other areas, e.g. through the introduction of airbags and other road safety improvements.

Conversely, the trend for distracted driving is in the opposite direction: the proportion of drivers in fatal accidents who were found to be distracted at the time of the accident has increased from 7% in 2005 to 11% in 2009. The other concern is that younger people are more likely to text and use the phone, and less likely to see it as an issue, which means we will see a problem as their generation ages.

Hence, whether or not today the absolute number is higher, the directional trends show that we should be at least as concerned about texting / phone use as drink driving. 

Having said that, we should also be concerned about drink driving and there is still plenty of scope for improving those statistics. When I moved to California from the UK, the relatively more casual attitude to drinking and driving was quite a surprise. According to the omniscient wikipedia:

In countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia drunk driving and deaths caused by drunk driving are considerably lower than the USA. Drunk driving deaths in the UK (population 61 million, 31 million cars) were 380 in 2010 (12% of all fatal accidents). In California (population 36 million, 32 million cars) there were 1,489 deaths from traffic accidents related to "alcohol or other drugs" in 2007 (22% of all fatal accidents).Alcohol consumption per capita in the UK and Australia is higher than the US and the legal age for drinking lower.


paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 5:23:36 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data? The studies I have read put drinking coffee and listening to the radio are in the same class of distraction as talking on a hands free phone.

DCITDave 12/5/2012 | 5:23:35 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

Even worse (statistically speaking) is putting on makeup.


shygye75 12/5/2012 | 5:23:34 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

Toenail clippers are the worst, by far. But accidents involving chimpanzee drivers are almost nonexistent. Maybe we have a new service-animal opportunity to consider.

derac 12/5/2012 | 5:23:29 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

DUI is clearly understood as the major problem with traffic fatalities..  no one is arguing that case.   Just as its understood that using the phone is a major distraction while driving.   Handsfree phone use is likely less distracting but distracting none the less.   Texting is as dangerous as DUI.   Distracted driving is an issue as more and more kids take to the roads with a cellphone grafted to their right [of left] hand.   I don't ride my motorcycle to work because of distracted drivers.   No one instills fear in the hearts of a motorcyclists than a driver texting away or reading email or looking up a phone number.   Distracted drviers have poor situational awareness and typically don't know what they are doing to the traffic around them.   They go merrily along while the fender bender they caused snarls traffic behind them.   Just put the darn phone down.

DCITDave 12/5/2012 | 5:23:27 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

About these distracted drivers that are keeping you off your bike -- were they good, attentive drivers before they owned smartphones?

DCITDave 12/5/2012 | 5:23:24 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

My interest is simply to challenge the assumption by many that distracted driving is the most dangerous thing on the roadways. The data suggests otherwise. I'm no more defending distracted driving than you are defending drunk driving. 

paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 5:23:24 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?


Note,  I was not kidding about studies and hands free phones.  Talking to someone in the car is the same as talking on a hands free phone from a distraction standpoint.  Which is the thing that is driving my commentary.  You are willing to talk about some distractions but you also need to eliminate:


Passengers - ESPECIALLY Children


Drinks of ALL Kinds

Infotainment Systems

People driving with iPods in both ears (I see that every day)

Basically any activity other than driving is NOT driving and can be a problem.  Now we all get to compromise and figure out what we want and don't want.  What I think Phil (and I) are driving at is the demonization of some activities over others.

Just FYI, Mercedes did not have cup holders for a long time because who in their right mind would drink coffee on the autobahn at 100+ MPH.



ethertype 12/5/2012 | 5:23:24 PM
re: Distracted Driving: Where's the Data?

Don't trivialize it, Phil.  They may have been bad drivers before, but playing with smartphones makes them worse.  You don't need a big study to believe that.  They scare the hell out of me when I'm in a car, so I can completely sympathize with how a biker must feel.

One gets the feeling that your entire motivation to comment on this subject is rooted in a selfish interest, i.e. you don't want to put down your phone when you're driving... and you don't want to be TOLD that you should.  Look in the mirror and ask yourself honestly:  is your demand for better data sincere, or a way of feeling OK about doing something that, deep down, you really know is not safe?

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