A report from the National Safety Council analyzing the national statistics on fatal motor vehicle crashes found that crashes caused by cell phone distractions have been vastly underreported.
The report, titled "Crashes Involving Cell Phones: Challenges of Collecting and Reporting Reliable Crash Data" and funded in part by Nationwide Mutual Insurance, reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 where evidence indicated the driver was using a cell phone. Of these fatal crashes, only 52 percent in 2011 were coded in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), the national database of fatal motor vehicle crashes and their causes, as involving cell phone use.
The report also brings up large differences in the number of cell phone distraction fatal crashes reported by states. For instance, in 2011, Tennessee reported 93 fatal crashes that involved cell phone use, but New York, a state with a much larger population, reported only one. Texas reported 40, but its neighboring state Louisiana reported none.
"We believe the number of crashes involving cell phone use is much greater than what is being reported," Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, said 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."
Even when drivers admitted cell phone use during a fatal crash, the Council's analysis found that in about half of these cases, the crash was not coded in the FARS database as involving a cell phone. In addition, the report noted there are an unknown number of cases in which cell phone involvement in crashes is impossible to determine—for instance, a driver who was reading an email or text message on a phone and then died in a crash without any witnesses.
"The public should be aware that cell phone-involved fatal crashes are not accurately being reported," Bill Windsor, associate vice president of consumer safety at Nationwide, said in a statement. "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."
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.
About one in three U.S. drivers read or sent text or email messages when driving, and most admitted to talking on the phone while driving, according to a March study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of February 2013, 33 states and the District of Columbia have laws in place restricting at least some teens or new drivers from using cell phones while driving, according to the CDC. However, the organization also noted more research would be needed to identify strategies that can decrease distraction-related crashes.