Distracted driving deaths have been declining for a decade. A happy truth, and one that doesn’t seem to jive with our personal observations.
The first iPhones were sold in America in June of 2009. Prior to that year in 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that nearly 6,000 people were killed in America in accidents involving distracted driving. The latest data available is for 2017 and deaths due to distracted driving according to NHTSA have declined to 3,166. That is a 46% decline since smartphones were launched and a decline of 8% compared to 2016.
This is not a hiccup or glitch or some sort of reporting error. Distracted driving deaths have been declining for about a decade after climbing slightly. In 2004 the number of deaths reported by NHTSA was 4,978. In 2005 it was 4,572. In 2007, years before the iPhone, distracted driver deaths peaked in modern America at 5,988. When considered as a percentage of overall automotive-related deaths, 2008 was the peak year for distracted driving deaths at 16%. In the last year of data, 2017, distracted driving accounted for “just” 8.5% of those killed in auto-related fatalities. Distracted driving deaths were:
3,154 in 2013,
3,179 in 2014,
3,477 in 2015,
3,450 in 2016,
And in 2017, 3,166. Distracted driving fatalities are relatively flat over the past five years, but have declined since 2014.
We have used the iPhone launch in this story as a point in time, not to indicate that all distracted driving deaths are caused by using smartphones. Police report distracted driving of many types on their reports involving fatal accident investigations. We as a society always link the use of a mobile device in a vehicle to distracted driving because the safety advocacy media in general drives that point home. NHTSA says of distracted driving types, “Oftentimes, discussions regarding distracted driving center around cell phone use and texting, but distracted driving also includes other activities such as eating, talking to other passengers, or adjusting the radio or climate controls, to name but a few. A distraction-affected crash is any crash in which a driver was identified as distracted at the time of the crash.” Police reports only attribute about 10 to 15% of distraction-related deaths to phone usage as the chart below shows. Note that the chart shows only crashes, not pedestrian strikes and other types of fatalities.
In 2010, one of the groups that provide the raw data to NHTSA began to refine the way that distracted driving data is collected. NHTSA notes that making direct comparisons to prior years is not suggested as valid. The new data collection methods are not more conservative. The intent was to capture more distraction-related events and to better categorize the causes. All of the available data shows that distracted driving deaths have declined.
In NHTSA’s most recent report on the number of vehicle-related deaths in America, distracted driving receives just a single sentence, hidden on page five of the seven-page report. It is only mentioned in the “Additional Facts” section. Distracted driving does not even earn a topic heading. Perhaps justifiably. Still, each year NHTSA produces a special report on the subject of distracted driving deaths, and will likely do so this year after the partial government shutdown is resolved.
Are people actually using mobile devices while driving less? Are they making fewer interactions with their phone while driving? Studies observing drivers and recording their behavior show drivers are interacting with hand-held devices less. In NHTSA’s study, 4% of drivers were observed holding a cell phone while driving in 2014. By 2016, the most recent year of that study, the observed number had dropped to 3%. In 2014 3% of drivers were observed to be manipulating a device. By 2016 that number had dropped to 2%. Similarly, self-reported self-phone usage numbers are declining. Other studies conducted by the University of Virginia and funded by IIHS/HDLI have recently shown that cell phone interactions by drivers dropped between 2014 and 2018. Those researchers do have concerns that the type of interactions are becoming more complex and thus more distracting, but concluded that because the behavior is uncommon overall “…the increased prevalence (of complex manipulations) would be expected to only slightly increase crash rates.”
Alcohol and speeding remain the two largest causes of traffic deaths. This has been true for decades and never changed when smartphones were introduced. The percentages have shifted a bit over the years, but combined these two causes account for roughly 60% of traffic deaths in the modern age of driving. In 2017, alcohol was the primary factor in 29% of the 37,133 people killed in an event related to automobiles. Do the math and one finds that NHTSA data show driving under the influence of alcohol kills about 20 times as many people per year in America than does distracted driving related to mobile devices.
We drivers observe (and engage in) distracted driving daily. We see drivers looking down as they pass us on two-lane roads. As we pass a car drifting out of its lane, we see a phone, tablet, or other device occupying the attention of a fellow commuter. How does this commonly observed behavior jive with a solid history of declining deaths reported by the Department of Transportation? We’ll let the readers speculate on that. We will just stick to the facts and figures in this story on the decline in distracted driving deaths. One thing that we do know from looking at the totality of the data available is that teen driving deaths are also declining in America in both absolute numbers and when miles-driven are considered. There is no recent spike in deaths in the age group we most often point the finger at when discussing distracted driving.