Cellphones can track what we say and write, where we go, what we buy and what we search on the internet. But they still aren’t being used to track one of the biggest public health threats: crashes caused by drivers distracted by the phones.
More than a decade after federal and state governments seized on the dangers that cellphone use while driving posed and began enacting laws to stop it, there remains no definitive database of the number of crashes or fatalities caused by cellphone distraction. Safety experts say that current estimates most likely understate a worsening problem.
The absence of clear data comes as collisions are rising. Car crashes recorded by the police rose 16 percent from 2020 to 2021, to 16,700 a day from 14,400 a day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2021, nearly 43,000 Americans died in crashes, a 16-year high.
In 2021, only 377 fatal wrecks — just under 1 percent — were reported as having involved a cellphone-distracted driver, according to the traffic agency. About 8 percent of the 2.5 million nonfatal crashes that year involved a cellphone, according to the highway agency’s data.
But those figures do not capture all cellphone distraction; they include only crashes in which a police report specifically mentions such distraction. Often, safety experts said, cellphone use goes unmentioned in such reports because it typically relies on a driver to admit distraction, a witness to identify it or, in still rarer cases, the use of cellphone records or other phone forensics that definitively show distraction.
The police can access cellphone records, but the process is cumbersome and privacy laws require a subpoena. Even then, further analysis must be done to link a driver’s phone activity with the timing of a crash.
“That analysis is expensive, and unless the police really think there is a criminal case, they don’t do it,” said Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah and an expert in the science of driver distraction. He added that “unless someone fesses up to using the phone, the police don’t consider it to be a factor.”
Safety experts said the current data were effectively 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 & 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 traffic fatalities.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conceded that there was significant underreporting of distraction when it came to 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 roadway.”
Drivers may not admit distractions to the police but they do admit to the behavior in anonymous surveys. In a nationally representative survey in 2022, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that about 20 percent of drivers said they regularly scrolled social media, read email, played games, watched videos or recorded and posted them while driving.