Are Distracted Driving Campaigns Preventing Car Accidents?
“It’s an epidemic,” notes Ray LaHood. The Secretary for the Department of Transportation (DOT) is not talking about the latest bout of influenza, but rather one of the hottest topics in the media when it comes to motorist safety: distracted driving.
In the last few years, over 30 states have enacted legislation relating to handheld cell phone use, cell phone use by teens and school bus drivers, and text messaging while driving. Several more states have other distracted-driving-related proposals on the table.
Statistics provided by the DOT indicate that distracted driving was linked to 10 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2005, and rose to 16 percent in 2008 and 2009. Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) suggest that cell phone use while driving quadruples the risk of a car accident, but IIHS believes there may be bias in the data.
It is difficult to determine if reckless driving or car crashes are caused by cell phone use, as few drivers would want to admit to police that they were talking on the phone or texting rather than paying attention to the road.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) analyzed over 7,000 crashes from 2005 to 2007, concluding that 30 percent of them involved some type of distraction. But of 14 possible distractions present in cars, texting while driving was not a concern. Although part of this may be due to the fact that text messaging wasn’t as common in 2007 as it is in 2010, it still appears other distractions in cars are more prevalent:
- 3.4 percent of crashes involved driving while talking, dialing, or hanging up a phone
- 3.2 percent of crashes were associated with looking at other objects in the car (food, drink, CDs, etc.)
- 16 percent of distracted-driving crashes were due to talking with another passenger
So while cell phones may cause a distraction, phones are just yet another in a long list of possible driver distractions – distractions that are not always being targeted in motorist safety campaigns.
Some safety advocates are also concerned that federal funding from NHTSA used by the states is being funneled into distracted driving campaigns, and out of child-safety protection efforts. In September 2010, NHTSA reported that car accident deaths involving children under 14 had decreased by 3 percent. During that same time period, however, traffic fatalities for children from ages 1 to 6 increased by 18 percent. Child safety advocates say that it is important for motorist safety efforts to continue to focus on protecting adults and children with seat belts and proper car seats.
Whether distracted driving campaigns are truly improving motorist safety and reducing motor vehicle accidents remains to be seen.