Now that the 2003 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report “Using Wireless Communication Devices While Driving” has been made public, it raises significant concerns about safety when driving with a cell phone. (Download the report as a pdf. Read "NHTSA withholds government study exposing cell phone driving dangers.")
When the report was last updated, it cited about 147 million active cell-phone subscribers and that figure was expected to climb. At the time, crash and fatality data from 2000 to 2002 show that cell phone use as a contributing factor increased 50 percent over that time. The estimate for 2002 was somewhere between 508 and 1,248 fatalities.
Jump ahead a few years and cell phones have become ubiquitous, with CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, citing 270.3 million wireless subscribers as of December 2008. And with the increased prevalence of cell phones, and expansion of interactive services like texting, crashes and injuries have also increased.
The National Safety Council (NSC) earlier this month released an estimate described as “conservative” that more than 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries, and 2,600 deaths are caused a year by a distracted drivers on cell phones.
NHTSA estimates that driver distraction from all sources contributes to 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes. If so, then data from this federal agency released this month shows that the NSC figures are indeed conservative.
NHTSA shows 5,811,000 total crashes in 2008—notably down from 2007. (It is important to note that during the first three months of 2009, national vehicle miles declined by about 11.7 billion miles compared to the previous year. That said, deaths per mile are also down.) One quarter of that 2008 figure is 1,452,750—a significant number of crashes Potentially impacted by driver distraction.
While no specific correlation can be made from this data set to injuries and deaths attributable to cell phone usage, the threat to motorists and even pedestrians has clearly increased since that 2003 NHTSA report was prepared.
Consumers Union’s take: The New York Times story exposing the withheld report raises serious concerns about NHTSA—an agency whose mission is to improve vehicle safety and save lives. One thing is very clear—talking or texting on a cell phone while driving is a dangerous distraction. It’s not just a matter of whether the phone is hands-free, and texting while driving raises this level of risk exponentially.
Cell-phone use is becoming a major cause of road crashes and fatalities. NHTSA should step up and warn drivers about the risks of cell phone use behind the wheel, and state governments need to crack down on this growing problem.
Just this weekend, Consumer Reports Deputy Technical Director David Champion addressed the question “Should cell phone use by drivers be illegal?” in the New York Times.