Driving while distracted by cell phones an underreported problem

Recent studies suggest that the deadly epidemic of accidents caused by distracted driving may be worse than was thought. Research indicates that accidents involving cell phone use have been inaccurately reported, and that the death toll for teens due to texting is higher than ever.

Data underreported

Researchers with the National Safety Council carefully analyzed 180 fatal accidents in which there was evidence that drivers were using a cell phone, occurring from 2009 to 2011. Reports from state and local police that were entered into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database did not indicate cell phone use in about fifty percent of these accidents. Even when drivers acknowledged that they had been on the phone when a fatal accident happened, half of the time, officers still failed to include that information in their database entries, the NSC found.

The latest year for which the NHTSA database has complete information is 2011. That year, cell phone use was reported in only 385 out of more than 32,000 traffic fatalities. The NSC believes that number is far too low, failing to reflect cell phone usage accurately.

States vary

One factor that aroused the NSC's suspicion was that the rate of reported cell phone use varied considerably from state to state. For example, the largest numbers of cellphone-related fatalities were reported in Tennessee, and the most populous state, California, reported less than a fourth as many cell phone fatalities as Tennessee. Even worse, New York police reported just one single fatal crash related to cell phone use in 2011. It is unlikely that these variations accurately represent the real numbers for these states.

If police do not ask whether a driver was using a cell phone, they depend on accident survivors to volunteer that information. It is possible to find out from phone records whether a driver was using the phone at the time of the accident, but it can be a laborious process and many law enforcement agencies and prosecutors do not bother.

Adopting a standard reporting form with a box to check concerning cell phone use is one way to ensure that police at least ask if the driver was on the phone. A number of states are now using a model form that contains this provision, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Teens at great risk

For the first time, texting while driving has become a greater cause of teen injury and death than alcohol use. Cohen Children's Medical Center researchers estimate that each year 3,000 deaths and 300,000 injuries among teenagers are attributable to texting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that annually 2,700 teens die and 282,000 are treated for injuries in DUI accidents.

Whenever someone is hurt in a distracted driving accident, negligence may be found, and victims deserve to be compensated. Relatives of a loved one who has been killed can pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. An experienced personal injury attorney can analyze the facts and determine whether there is a good chance that a lawsuit will succeed. Damages may be awarded to pay for medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.