Distracted driving gets much blame for rise in traffic deaths, but is that accurate?

Everyone sees distracted drivers on the road these days, and almost everyone suspects that texting and driving is contributing to an alarming rise in traffic fatalities.

But is it? Some researchers, including an insurance institute whose crash-testing has been regarded as more stringent than the federal government’s, say appearances may be deceiving: it’s still too soon to say whether smartphones have made our highways less safe.

Yet, the perception that smartphones have created more distracted drivers and crashes has become widespread, and not just in the United States.

The European Traffic Safety Council, responding to the first increase in traffic fatalities since 2001, said in a report this year that a possible factor could be the apparent slowdown in police enforcement against illegal use of cellphones.  Last week, a major Scandinavian insurer warned investors that claims had risen sharply in the region, at least in part because of distracted driving.

In Canada, police reported that despite writing more than $1 million worth of tickets, drivers still can’t seem to put their phones down. In Kansas, where traffic deaths rose 16 percent this year, transportation officials blamed distracted driving as one of the contributors.

Earlier this month, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released data showing a 10 percent jump in traffic fatalities in the first part of this year compared to the previous year. Editorials have since appeared in newspapers such as Newsday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and others singling out smartphones as a possible culprit and urging people to hang up and drive. Some urged tougher penalties and increased enforcement.

But NHTSA has been more cautious in its assessment of distracted driving’s role in rising highway fatalities. The agency has emphasized that the more likely causes are the strength of the national economy, the low cost of fuel and other human error, such as the failure to buckle up.  Here’s how NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind responded in an interview this month with National Public Radio when he was asked why fatalities have soared:

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that despite what everyone’s seeing on the highway, there’s no hard evidence so far to tie the dramatic increase in crashes or traffic fatalities to smartphone use.

The Virginia-based nonprofit association says that the increase in highway fatalities reported this year more likely coincides with lower unemployment – and thus has it usually been, as you can see from this chart:

When people are out of work, they’re also off the road and vice versa, the argument goes.

Jessica Cicchino, vice president for research at the insurance institute, said in an interview that it’s also not just that more people are driving — it’s who’s doing the driving. A mature economic recovery brings out more of the least mature drivers, i.e. teenagers, as more of them enter the job market, more of them get on the road.

And then it’s not just who’s driving but how they’re driving. When times are good, people have more discretionary income to go out or travel.

The upshot is that Cicchino says drivers are probably not more distracted today than they were before  — they’re just distracted by more of one thing: the smartphone. Instead of hunting for a radio station, wolfing down a cheeseburger, applying makeup, or any of the other distractions that have been with us for sometime, drivers are now more often distracted by emojis.

And that’s still plenty dangerous, she said.

“It’s definitely a thing that people are doing. We know that people are doing it,” she said. But she said the data are just not there to pin the blame on smartphones for the fast rise in deaths.

At least not yet.

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