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Cell Phones Track Everything but the Accidents They Cause

Here’s a statistic you won’t believe: In 2021, less than 1% of fatal car crashes involved someone distracted by a cell phone.

It’s a statistic you probably shouldn’t believe. Anyone who has driven a car in the last decade has likely looked around them and seen the prevalence of drivers watching their phones and ignoring the road. But the figure is all safety experts have to go on.

That’s because, a recent New York Times article explains, it comes from police reports on fatal accidents. Mobile phone use typically “goes unmentioned in such reports because it typically relies on a driver to admit distraction, a witness to identify it or, in still rarer cases, the use of cellphone records or other phone forensics that definitively show distraction.”

Accidents, Fatal Accidents on the Rise

Accidents have risen steadily in the cell phone era, the Times notes. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show a 16% increase in accidents from 2020 to 2021. In 2021, a record number of Americans died in car crashes.

Some safety experts pin the rising numbers, partly, on drivers distracted by their phones. But police are almost completely unable to track the problem.

That’s odd because phones track nearly every way we use them. “Technologically, phones are capable of connecting the time of a car crash and the way the driver was using the phone at the time,” the Times notes.

“The police can access cellphone records, but the process is cumbersome, and privacy laws require a subpoena,” the Times explains. “Unless the police really think there is a criminal case, they don’t do it,” explains University of Utah researcher David Strayer.

Many Admit To Driving Distracted by Phones

When polled anonymously, many Americans admit to driving distracted. A 2022 AAA study found that more than a third of drivers admitted to driving while watching their phones within the last 30 days.

Some safety advocates think technology could help solve the problem.

Solutions Could Include Traffic Cameras, Phone Apps

Jake Nelson, director of Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research for AAA, told the Times that roadside cameras already being used to catch speeding drivers could identify drivers not watching the road.

The rise of self-driving cars could pose a challenge for that solution. But Mercedes-Benz – the only automaker to release a system that allows drivers to look away from the road safely – has a solution. The company now uses turquoise-colored lights on the outside of a car to signal to police that the automation is engaged.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a car safety watchdog funded by the insurance industry, has another idea. Many insurance companies now use phone apps to track driving habits, offering discounts to safe drivers.

The data those apps collect “could reveal whether a driver was manipulating their cellphone in the moments before impact any time they were involved in a crash,” the IIHS says.

That could enable more accurate reporting. We all know phones likely contribute to more than 1% of fatal accidents. But it’s easy to ignore the issue when no one can document it.

“It may come as a surprise, but many drivers still don’t realize how dangerous it is to check a text message or glance at their Instagram feed while they’re zipping along the road,” says IIHS researcher Aimee Cox.

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