Distracted Driving Report Claims Cell Phone Use Contributes to 24 Percent of All Crashes

April 24th, 2012

A new report from the National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 24 percent of all motor vehicle crashes involve cell phone use and outlines how advances in legislation, enforcement, technology, culture and corporate policies could help save lives and make the roads safer.

The report, "State of the Nation of Cell Phone Distracted Driving," was released April 12 and comes 3 years after NSC called for the first nationwide ban on all cell phone use while driving. The report reveals that NSC estimates cell phone use, whether handheld or hands-free, contributes to more than 1 million crashes a year, or 21 percent of all crashes. An additional 3 percent involve text messaging.

In an April 12 press call, John Ulczycki, group vice president of strategic initiatives at NSC, called cell phone use while driving "a significant, growing risk" and said the data on distracted driving crashes is "severely underreported."

NSC's report indicated that it is difficult to determine the full scope of the distracted driving problem because drivers are reluctant to admit their behavior; there is no "test" for distracted driving as with a blood-alcohol test for drunk driving; distracted drivers often have no witnesses; there is a lack of evidence in fatal crashes; law enforcement faces time and resource limitations; and it is difficult to obtain cell phone records at the time of a crash.

Risk and Prevalence

Ulczycki also addressed the common perception that cell phones are only one of many potential driving distractions and should therefore not be such a concern. In reality, he said, the existence of other distractions does not mean that these distractions are as prevalent or as risky as talking on a cell phone while driving.

"Cell phones are not the most dangerous or risky thing that people can do in their automobiles, yet because of the prevalence of their use, they are the distraction involved in the most crashes," Ulczycki said.

For example, turning around to talk to kids in the backseat of the car while driving may be more dangerous than using a cell phone, but this type of behavior is not nearly as prevalent among drivers as cell phone use. Similarly, drinking coffee or changing the radio station while driving is perhaps more prevalent than using a cell phone, but this behavior is not nearly as risky as cell phone use.

"It's not just the risk but the risk combined with the prevalence that sets cell phone use apart from any other distraction," Ulczycki said. "Texting is a much more dangerous activity than talking, but talking [on a cell phone] is much more prevalent, which is why talking leads to 6-7 times more crashes."

Corporate Policies

Many employers take a leading role in distracted driving reform by creating policies that completely ban employees' use of cell phones while driving. NSC estimates that more than 3 million employees are covered by total cell phone bans at work.

"Employers [implement] cell phone policies because they want to prevent injuries to employees. It's really no different than what they're doing in their workplace," Ulczycki said. "Employers who care about their employees and manage their safety in all aspects of their job put total ban policies in place because they know they have a responsibility to keep their employees safe."

Some companies currently maintain policies that address handheld cell phone use only, requiring employees to use hands-free devices while driving. The research shows, however, that hands-free devices are no safer than handheld phones. Ulczycki said companies may implement these partial bans to conform to state laws, as an intermediate step toward a total ban or because they do not understand that the same risks are inherent in hands-free cell phone use.

"Many companies have policies, procedures [and] best practices that go far beyond what OSHA laws require," he added. "The same thing is true here."

Outside of the workplace, NSC calls for additional legislation for distracted driving, high-visibility enforcement, technological solutions that prevent incoming and outgoing calls while driving and a cultural shift that does not accept cell phone use while driving.

To read the report in full, visit http://distracteddriving.nsc.org.