Cell phones can track what we say and write, where we go, what we buy and what we search for on the Internet. But they’re still not being used to track one of the biggest threats to public health: crashes caused by drivers distracted by their phones.
More than a decade after the federal government and state governments became aware of the dangers of cell phone use while driving and began enacting laws to stop it, there remains no definitive database on the number of accidents or deaths caused by phone distraction portable. Security experts say current estimates likely underestimate how much the problem is getting worse.
The lack of clear data comes as collisions increase. Police-recorded car crashes increased 16% between 2020 and 2021, from 14,400 per day to 16,700, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2021, nearly 43,000 Americans have died in accidents, a record in 16 years.
In 2021, according to the traffic agency, only 377 fatal accidents – or just under 1% – involved a driver distracted by their mobile phone. About 8 percent of the 2.5 million nonfatal crashes that year involved a cell phone, according to highway agency data.
But these numbers don’t account for all cell phone-related distractions; they only include accidents in which a police report specifically mentions such a distraction. Often, safety experts say, cell phone use goes unmentioned in these reports because it usually relies on the driver to admit to a distraction, a witness to identify it, or, in even rarer cases, from the use of cell phone recordings or other phone analyzes that definitively show the distraction.
Police can access cellphone records, but the process is cumbersome and privacy laws require a subpoena. Even then, further analysis must be performed to link a driver’s phone activity to the time of the accident.
“This analysis is expensive, and unless the police really think there’s a criminal case, they don’t do it,” said Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah and expert in the science of distracted driving. He added that “unless someone admits to using the phone, police don’t consider that a factor.”
Security experts said the current data was indeed unscientific and inaccurate.
“It’s almost certainly an underestimate, because people don’t like to admit things like that,” said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA. “It’s very frustrating to me that we don’t have access to better data, especially now that we’re at a 16-year high,” he added, referring to road deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recognized that there is significant underreporting of distraction in crashes. In a statement provided to The New York Times, the agency said it was “actively engaged in studies to examine the ability to measure the prevalence of distraction on the road.”
Drivers may not admit distractions to police, but they admit their behavior in anonymous surveys. In a nationally representative survey conducted in 2022, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that about 20% of drivers said they regularly scroll social media, read email, play games, games, watched videos or recorded and posted them while driving.