2010-01-28 / Features

Cellphones Cause One In Four U.S. Car Crashes


The National Safety Council recently announced its new findings that 1.6 million accidents a year are caused by cellphone use – a number that increases by more than a million earlier official estimates, and gives new fodder to a growing, nationwide antidistracted driving movement.

According to the organization, 1.4 million crashes are caused by people talking on the phone while driving. Another 200,000 – at least – are caused by drivers texting behind the wheel.

“This number is huge,” says David Teater, senior director of transportation strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council, whose 12-year-old son was killed in a crash caused by a driver on a cellphone.”One out of every four car crashes in the United States is caused by cellphone distraction.”

‘FocusDriven’ aims to be like MADD

The organization released the study on the same day as its president and CEO, Jane Froetscher, announced with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray La- Hood the creation of “Focus- Driven” – an advocacy group in the style of Mothers Against Drunk Driving that will work to fight distracted driving.

“Just as groups like MADD changed attitudes about drunk driving, I believe FocusDriven can help raise awareness and change the way people think about distracted driving,” LaHood said in announcing the group. “Together, I hope we can put an end to this dangerous practice.”

The group will be headed by Jennifer Smith, whose mother was killed by a driver on his cellphone. All five board members have also lost loved ones from cellphone distracted drivers.

The National Safety Council first called for a universal ban on cellphone use while driving a year ago. Although six states and the District of Columbia ban handheld cellphones behind the wheel – and 19 states plus the District of Columbia outlaw texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association – there are no complete cellphone prohibitions in the country.

Researchers studying cellphone use have long found that it dramatically impairs driving. It is not just the visual impairment – a driver takes his eyes off the road when dialing a number or writing text – but the cognitive disconnect involved: the brain is focused on a virtual conversation, so it does not compute images that come in front of the driver’s view.

Texters eight times more likely to crash

David Strayer, who studies distracted driving and runs the applied cognition lab at the University of Utah, has found that the likelihood of a crash increases fourfold when someone is talking on a cellphone; if they are texting, they are eight times more likely to crash.

Given what he has seen in his lab, where even the most confident texters tend to crash on a drive simulator, Strayer is not surprised that the National Safety Council found higher numbers of cellphone related accidents.

“You really are impaired when you do it, and lots of people do it,” he says.

Solid accident statistics have been difficult to come by, he says, in part because people tend to lie about whether they were on the phone when they crashed.

The next few months will see a concerted push by the distracted driving movement. Strayer said the Oprah Winfrey Show will dedicate an episode to the topic later this month, featuring Focus- Driven. National Public Radio’s Car Talk will also team up with Strayer to launch a new distracted driving Web site.

Teater and Strayer both say the goal is to make the use of cellphones behind the wheel as socially unacceptable as drunk driving.

“It’s very straight forward,” Teater says. “You just don’t do it.”

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