On the surface, it sounds like great news. Fatalities due to distracted driving are down, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The “number of fatalities in distraction-affected crashes decreased by 2.2 percent from 3,526 in 2015 to 3,450 in 2016,” reads their 2016 report. Let’s get the champagne!
But before we do, let’s take a deeper dive into the numbers. Where do these statistics come from? NHTSA compiles these numbers by looking at state-level police reports on car crashes. So, with a national agency reporting on these stats, the data must come from all 50 states, right? Nope. Only 11 states have a report that has a checkbox for distracted driving and only 27 states have a space to write in distraction as the cause of the crash.
What’s more is that Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Christopher Sanchez, a nationally recognized expert on distracted driving, says that many police departments are still focused on drunk driving or illegal substance use when investigating a crash. So even if the crash report has a checkbox for distracted driving, investigators may not be looking for it.
Even if investigators are looking for distracted driving, it can be hard to detect. If they weren’t on the scene when the crash occurred, and they don’t have witnesses, it’s incredibly difficult to prove that the reason the crash happened was because the driver was using their phone – by traditional means, at least.
This lack of data creates absurd situations and statistics. For instance, Tennessee is considered the state with the highest levels of distracted driving. It accounts for 19% of nationwide deaths caused by distracted driving – with only 2% of the country’s population. Why? Tennessee has the most detailed crash reports in the country. And they feature a checkbox for distracted driving.
What’s more likely – that Tennesseans are way more distracted than the rest of the country, or that the rest of the country is underreporting?
The answer matters for a number of reasons. First, a headline like “distracted driving is down” reduces the urgency of an issue that’s killing thousands of people every year. In a recent survey, 96% of people said they think distracted driving is as big a problem as drunk driving. But if the number of distracted driving deaths is going down without any apparent reason, people may think they can continue using their phone while driving without consequences. As it is, 55% of us would text while driving today if it were legal.
The second reason is that states and advocacy groups dedicate resources based on the numbers reported by agencies and organizations like NHTSA. If fatalities caused by distracted driving as a trend are slowing down, will states continue introducing laws preventing drivers from using their phones? As it stands today, only 15 states have laws that ban drivers from using their phone while driving. Will they continue to invest their budgets in developing PSAs to warn drivers of the dangers of texting while driving? What about exploring new technologies and conducting research on how to reduce distracted driving?
We’re not saying that we’re not excited that the number of deaths caused by distracted driving may have decreased in the past year. Far from it. If, and this is a big if, it’s true. And that’s the rub. Because if you report on numbers that everyone takes seriously that end up not really meaning much, you run the risk of losing credibility and fundamentally discrediting the issue, especially if you report a win that has no apparent cause for success. With no identified cause of success, how do you replicate it to accelerate the decline? If there truly are declines in fatalities caused by distracted driving, in order to be effective, we also need to know why.
So, what do we suggest? For starters, there should be a nationwide effort to put the distracted driving checkbox on every state’s crash report. We also need a breathalyzer equivalent for distracted driving. States should look closely at distracted driving and behavior modification programs offered by mobile telematics providers as a potential solution for tracking the issue. Yes, there are privacy issues to consider, but they could follow the same framework as drunk driving. Then at least we, and NHTSA, would know how big a problem distracted driving truly is.
And when it truly drops, we’d be able to pop that bottle of champagne.