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Cell Phone Use May Cause More Auto Accidents than Reported

Published on May 23, 2013 at 8:00 am in Distracted Driving Accident.

Distracted driving is one of the major causes of accidents in the U.S. In many cases, cell phone use is responsible for distracted driving accidents. According to a recent report from the National Safety Council, though, cell phones might cause more accidents than most people think.

Cell Phone Use Isn’t Always Reported

When police report auto accidents, they gather data from the drivers and witnesses to create an accurate representation of what caused the accident. In many cases, though, officers never learn that the at-fault driver was using a cell phone. The driver doesn’t want to admit it, and witnesses don’t always see the phone.

Even if officers do learn that a cell phone was in use, that information doesn’t always get passed on to the right agencies. Officers describe accidents with paper forms that often vary from state to state. They can even vary from city to city.

That makes it difficult for state agencies to record information accurately. Of course, it makes it even harder for the federal FARS program to receive accurate data about crashes.

With all of these steps between the accident and the national database, it’s easy to see how a lot of accident reports don’t tell the whole story.

The NSC Report Shows Under-reporting

When the NSC reviewed 180 fatal crashes where evidence showed cell phones were in use, it found that only 52 percent of them were coded in FARS as involving cell phones. In cases when the driver admitted to using a cell phone, only 50 percent were coded in FARS to indicate cell phone involvement.

That means we have a distorted idea of how many fatalities are actually caused by distracted driving.

A Look at State Numbers

A look at crash reports from states show numbers that are hard to believe. In 2011, California reported 2,594 fatal crashes, only 22 of which were coded as involving cell phones. Tennessee, however, reported only 874 fatal crashes, yet, it reported 93 fatalities involving cell phones.

Has California really done such a better job at educating drivers that less than one percent of fatal crashes involved cell phones while Tennessee’s fatal crashes made up more than 10 percent of accidents?

Several states show zero cell phone-related fatalities in 2011. New York only claims one even though it reported a total 1,092 fatal crashes.

It seems likely that coding differences between states has created warped statistics.

Number of Cell Phone-related Fatalities Potentially Unknowable

NSC admits that the actual number of cell phone-related fatalities might be unknowable. It’s simply too difficult to get accurate information from drivers and witnesses. Plus, deceased drivers can’t say whether they were on their phones.

Regardless, it’s plain that the current numbers only represent a portion of the fatal crashes involving cell phones. That’s a problem that could impact state policies as well as the decisions that drivers make when their phones ring.