Large state-by-state variations in the number of reports of fatal auto crashes that involve cell phone use are just one indication that these cases of distracted driving are under-reported, the National Safety Council said last week.

The Council, which released findings from a recent analysis of national statistics on fatal motor vehicle crashes, notes that Tennessee reported 93 fatal crashes that involved cell phone use in 2011, while New York, a state with a much larger population, reported only one.

Texas reported 40, but its neighboring state Louisiana reported none, the National Safety Council analysis notes.

The analysis is contained in a report entitled, “Crashes Involving Cell Phones: Challenges of Collecting and Reporting Reliable Crash Data,” funded in part by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company.

The report reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011, where evidence indicated driver cell phone use. Of these fatal crashes, in 2011 only 52 percent were coded in the national data as involving cell phone use.

“We believe the number of crashes involving cell phone use is much greater than what is being reported,” said Janet Froetscher president and CEO of the National Safety Council, in a statement. “Many factors, from drivers not admitting cell phone use, to a lack of consistency in crash reports being used to collect data at the scene, make it very challenging to determine an accurate number.”

“Currently there is no reliable method to accurately determine how many crashes involve cell phone use; therefore, it is impossible to know the true scope of the problem,” the report says.

Challenges to verifying that cell phone use was a contributing factor in a motor vehicle crash include these facts:

  • That police must often rely on drivers to admit to cell phone use. This is not possible when drivers are not forthcoming or are seriously injured or deceased.
  • That witness memories and statements may be inaccurate.
  • That police may not fully investigate cell phone use if it’s not a violation in their jurisdiction, if a more obvious violation such as speeding or lane departure is identified, or if a more serious violation is involved such as alcohol or other drug impairment.
  • That if cell phone records are obtained, data must align with the precise moment of the crash—a moment which is not always known

Even when drivers admitted cell phone use during a fatal crash, the Council’s analysis found that in about one-half of these cases, the crash was not coded in Federal data (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatal Analysis Reporting System).

“The public should be aware that cell phone-involved fatal crashes are not accurately being reported,” said Bill Windsor, associate vice president of consumer safety at Nationwide. “These statistics influence national prevention priorities, funding decisions, media attention, legislation and policy, even vehicle and roadway engineering.”

“There are wide-ranging, negative ramifications to safety if a fatal crash factor is substantially under-reported, as appears to be the case of cell phone use in crashes,” he said in a statement about the report.

In 2012, highway fatalities increased for the first time in seven years. Based on risk and prevalence of cell phone use, as reported by research and NHTSA, the National Safety Council estimates 25 percent of all crashes involve cell phone use.

Source: National Safety Council, Nationwide