Jennifer Smith doesn’t like the expression “accident. ” It implies too much chance and little culpability.
When her car was broadsided by another vehicle while on her way to pick food up, she insists, #x & A 201C; #x 201D & wreck; murdered her mother in 2008. Another driver, a 20-year-old school student, ran a red light while talking on his mobile phone, a distraction that he immediately confessed and cited as the catalyst of the fatal event.
“He was remorseful,” Smith, now 43, said. “He never changed his story. ”
Yet in federal records, the death isn’t imputed to distraction or mobile-phone usage. It’s just another line item on the annual toll taken by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration [NHTSA] —one of 37,262 that year. Three months later, Smith quit her job as a realtor and formed Stopdistractions.org, a nonprofit lobbying and service team. Her intent was to create the tragic loss of her mother an anomaly.
To that end, she has been wildly unsuccessful. Nine decades later, the issue of death-by-distraction has gotten worse.
Over the past two decades, after decades of declining deaths on the road, U.S. traffic fatalities surged by 14.4 percent. In 2016 alone, over 100 people died every day in or near vehicles in America, the first time the country has passed that grim toll in a decade. Regulators, meanwhile, still have no good idea why crash-related deaths are spiking: People are driving longer distances but not tremendously so; total miles were up only 2.2 percent last year. Collectively, we seemed to be speeding and drinking a bit more, but not much more than usual. Together, experts say these upticks don’t explain the spike in road deaths.
You will find however three large clues, and they don’t rest along the street. One, as you may have guessed, is your substantial increase in smartphone use by U.S. drivers as they drive. By 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned an iPhone, Android phone, or something similar climbed from 75 percent to 81 percent.
The second is the changing way in which Americans use their phones while they drive. These daysre. Texting, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the order of the day—all actions that require a lot more attention than just holding a gadget to your ear or reacting to a disembodied voice. By 2015, nearly 70 percent of Americans were using their phones to share photos and follow news events via social networking. In just two additional years, that figure has jumped to 80 percent.
Finally, the rise in fatalities has been mostly among bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians—all of whom are easier to miss from the driver’s seat than, say, a 4,000-pound SUV—especially if you’re glancing up from your telephone rather than focusing on the road. Last year, 5,987 pedestrians were killed by automobiles in the U.S., nearly 1,100 more than in 2014—that’s a 22 percent growth in only two decades.
Safety regulators and law enforcement officials certainly understand the danger of taking—or making—when managing a piece of heavy machinery, a telephone call. They still, however, don’t know just how dangerous it is, because the information only isn’t easily obtained. And as cellular phone traffic continues to shift away from simple voice calls and texts to encrypted social networks, officials increasingly have less of a clue than previously.
Out of NHTSA’s full 2015 dataset, only 448 deaths were linked to cellular phones—that’s only 1.4 percentage of all traffic fatalities. By that measure, drunk driving is 23 times more deadly than having a telephone while driving, though studies have shown that both actions behind the wheel comprise (on average) a similar amount of impairment. NHTSA has yet to fully crunch its 2016 data, but the bureau said deaths tied to diversion actually.
There are reasons to believe mobile phones are far more deadly than NHTSA spreadsheets suggest. Some of the indicators are within the data. In over half of 2015 crashes, drivers only went down the road—no traffic, rainstorms, or blowouts. Meanwhile, drivers involved in accidents increasingly mowed down things smaller than a Honda Accord, such as cyclists or pedestrians, a lot of whom occupy the side of the road or the sidewalk beside it. Fatalities increased inordinately among motorcyclists (up 6.2 percent in 2016) and pedestrians (up 9 percent).
“Honestly, I believe the number of fatalities is at least three times the federal figure,” Jennifer Smith said. “We’the scale of this and re is unheard of. ”
In a recent study (PDF), the nonprofit National Safety Council found only about half of fatal crashes tied to known cellular phone use were coded as such in NHTSA databases. To put it differently, according to the NSC, NHTSA𠆟igures for death are too low.
Perhaps more telling are the findings of Zendrive Inc., a San Francisco startup that assesses smartphone data to help insurers of commercial fleets assess safety risks. In a study of 3 million people, it found drivers with their mobile telephone during 88 percent of trips. The real number is probably even higher because Zendrive didn’t capture instances when phones were mounted at a fixed position—so-called hands free technology, which is also considered dangerous.
“It’s certainly terrifying,” stated Jonathan Matus, Zendrive’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “Pretty much everybody is using their phone while driving. ”
There are, by now, myriad nannies that suspend smartphone activity. A variant of Apple’s iOS operating system could be configured to keep a phone asleep when its owner is driving and also to send an automatic text response to incoming messages. However, the “Do Not Disturb” function can be overridden from the person seeking to get in touch. More seriously, safety advocates note that these systems require an opt-in from the same users that have difficulty.
In NHTSA’s defense, its own tally of cellular phone-related deaths is just as good as the information it receives from individual states, each of which has its own methods for assessing and detailing the cause of a crash. Each state then relies to compile #x 2014 & crash metrics;and they do things also.
The information from each nation is compiled from accident reports filed by police, the majority of which don’t prompt officers. Only 11 states use reporting forms which contain a field for police to diversion, while 27 have a space to note diversion in general as a cause of the collision.
The print appears to create a difference. Tennessee, for instance, has one of the most thorough accident report forms in the country, a document that asks police to rate both distractions generally and mobile phones in particular. Of the 448 accidents involving a telephone in 2015 as reported by NHTSA, 84 occurred in Tennessee. That means, a country with two percent of the country’s population accounted for 19 percent of its own phone-related driving deaths. As in polling, it really depends on how you ask the question.
Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Christopher Sanchez, a national expert on distracted driving, said when investigating a crash drinking or drug use is still focused on by many police departments. Figuring out whether there was a phone in use at the time of a crash is is currently getting trickier #x 2014 & every day;proving that it precipitated case can be even tougher to do.
Prosecutors have a bias that is similar. Currently, it’s illegal for drivers to use a handheld phone whatsoever in 15 states, and texting while driving is specifically prohibited in 47 states. But obtaining phone records following a crash typically involves a court order and, and even then, the records may not reveal much activity beyond text or a call. If police offer evidence of speeding, drinking, drugs or any other violation, lawyers won’t bother pursuing distraction.
“Crash investigators are told to catch up with #x 2014 & this technology phenomenon;and #x 2019 & it;s #x 201D, & challenging; Sanchez said. “Every year new programs have been developed that make it even more difficult. ” Officers in Arizona and Montana, meanwhile, don’t need to bother, since they allow mobile phone use while you drive. And in Missouri, police only have to track drivers under age 21 who pick up their phone.
Like Smith, Emily Stein, 36, lost a parent. She sometimes finds herself performing surveys ever since her father was murdered by a distracted driver in 2011. She’ll sit in front of her house in the suburbs west of Boston and observe how many passing drivers peek at their phones.
“I inform my local police departmentIf you sit on my stoop, come here and hand out tickets. You’d create a lot of revenue,’”.
Since forming the Safe Roads Alliance five decades back, Stein talks to the police frequently. “A lot of them say it surpasses driving now,”. Meanwhile, grieving families and safety advocates such as her are still fighting to pass legislation mandating hands-free-only usage of phones while driving—Iowa and Texas only got around to banning texting behind the wheel.
“The argument is that #x 201D & #x 2019; s government that is big, & it; said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “The other issue is that & it #x 2026 & #x 2019; s hard to ban something which all of us do, and we understand that we want to perform. ”
Safety advocates such as Smith say lawmakers, researchers and prosecutors obtained’t reevaluate the danger of mobile phones in vehicles until they have been seen as a large issue—as large as drinking, say. Yet, it won’t be measured as such until it’s a priority for lawmakers, investigators and prosecutors.
“That’s #x 201D, & the here; Smith said. “We all understand what’s going on, but we don’t. ”
Perhaps the lawmakers who vote against controlling phone use in automobiles should watch the heart-wrenching 36-minute documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog made on the topic. The piece, laudably, , was bankrolled from the country’s cellular companies. “It’s not just an accident,” Herzog stated of the fatalities. “It’s a new form of culture and it’s coming with great vehemence. ”
Adkins has watched smartphone civilization overtake much of his work in ten years at the helm of the GHSA, growing increasingly frustrated with the death toll and what he calls underreporting of phone fatalities. But he doesn’t believe the numbers will come down until a backlash takes hold, one where it’s viewed as shameful to drive while using a telephone. Herzog’s documentary, it seems, has had little effect in its four decades on YouTube.com. At this time, Adkins is only holding out for gains in autonomous driving technologies.
“I use #x 201D, & the cocktail party illustration; he explained. “If you’re at a cocktail party and say, ‘I was hammered the other day, and I got behind the wheel,’. But if you say the same thing about using a mobile phone, it won’t. It is still acceptable, and that’s the issue. ”
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