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Posted on 08-24-2014

Based on national data on fatal crashes in the United States, 3,328 people died in crashes in 2012 in which the police reported that distraction was a contributing factor. 2 Cellphone use was indicated as a contributing factor in 12 percent of these deaths. However, these statistics are imprecise and likely underestimate the role of distraction in fatal crashes. Police crash reports aren't a reliable way to count cellphone-related collisions because drivers often don't volunteer that they were on the phone and there is usually a lack of other evidence to determine the driver’s phone use. Plus, the codes for reporting distractions on police crash reports vary from state to state.

In an in-depth study of a nationally representative sample of police-reported crashes occurring during 2005-07 and involving at least one vehicle towed from the scene, crash-involved drivers and witnesses were interviewed at the crash scene to examine the role of driver inattention and other pre-crash factors. Based on these interviews, police reports, and other information, cellphone use (talking, dialing, hanging up or text messaging), was estimated to be a factor in about 3 percent of the crashes. 13 Although this study attempted to identify pre-crash events, it still is likely that the estimates of distraction are imprecise as they rely heavily on the self-report of drivers and observers.

Estimates of the crash risk associated with cellphone use have been combined with the estimated prevalence of drivers’ phone use to project the expected number of crashes linked to phone use. An Institute study following this approach indicated that drivers’ phone use could account for 22 percent of all police-reported crashes, based on an estimated fourfold increase in crash risk associated with phone use and survey results indicating that drivers use phones 7 percent of the time. 3 

However, there is a disconnect between these results and real-world crash trends, which show declines in recent years. There were about 5.6 million police-reported crashes in 2012, considerably fewer than the 6.4 million crashes in 2000, when national observation surveys began documenting the increase in drivers’ phone use. An increase in crashes isn't showing up in insurance claims either. An analysis by HLDI indicates that the rates of insurance collision claims have declined from 2000-2012. 14

2 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2014. Driver electronic device use in 2012. Report no. DOT HS-811-884. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.

3 Farmer, C.M.; Braitman, K.A.; and Lund, A.K. 2010. Cellphone use while driving and attributable crash risk. Traffic Injury Prevention 11(5):466-70.

13 Singh, S. 2010. Distracted driving and driver, roadway, and environmental factors. Report no. DOT HS 811-380. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

14 Highway Loss Data Institute. 2013. [Unpublished analysis of collision claim frequencies]. Arlington, VA.

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