Journalists and bloggers everywhere assembled stories highlighting bits and pieces from DOT’s press release. Tanya Mohn of the New York Times highlighted the number of distraction-affected deaths, “In 2010 at least 3,092 people were killed in distraction-affected crashes, accounting for roughly one in every 10 traffic deaths.”
This is a good news story. The government is going to make driving more safe. Right? Why then am I shaking my head in frustration.
You see, DOT has been on a media frenzy when it comes to distracted driving. Standalone websites (distraction.gov), multiple media campaigns, studies and even professional videos; all focused on distracted driving. But is the effort and the resources all justified when compared to other causes of vehicle fatalities?
That’s a tough question to answer. I’m sure NHTSA would prefer to have a bottomless pit of money at their disposal to save as many lives as possible. But the reality in Washington is that budgets are being reduced and federal agencies need to be more prudent than ever on how they allocate their resources.
Take a look at the chart I posted above. It was pulled from a Fact Sheet on NHTSA’s website. Unrestrained (not wearing a seatbelt or child not secured in a safety seat) fatalities made up over half of all vehicle fatalities in 2010. While I can’t say that all of these deaths were preventable had the victim been properly restrained, I can say it would have increased their odds of survival greatly.
Vehicular suicide – when you die in a vehicle accident not wearing a seat belt. Murder – when a child dies in a vehicle accident not properly secured. It really is that simple. Driving unrestrained is stupid.
When you look at the body count, distracted vs. unrestrained, you have to ask yourself – Where is the blueprint for seatbelts, Mr. Secretary? This recent declaration to end distracted driving isn’t anything more than another hip-educational campaign targeting a problem at the bottom of the list of Threats Americans Face on the Road.
Distraction Doesn’t Mean Texting
What needs to be made very clear to the public is that “distraction-affected” doesn’t mean texting and driving. The two are NOT interchangeable. NHTSA has made improvements in redefining the term to more accurately capture data involving driver behavior such cell phone use and passenger distraction. At one point having a phone ‘in your car’ was enough to be counted as distracted-driving. But to lead people to believe that the 3,092 deaths touted in the press releases are related to cell-phone use is disingenuous. It should also be noted that in 2009 there were over 5,000 “distracted-related” vehicle fatalities. NHTSA says the decline in cases (over 2,000) is due to the change in how distraction is captured in the fatality reporting system.
If NHTSA continues to use “distracted-affected” fatalities in their press material, they should begin to stress the multiple factors, both inside your vehicle and outside your vehicle (called cognitive distractions) that can result in a distraction-affected fatality. It seems their message is very limited to cell phones use and ignores many of the other distractions that could lead to a fatal accident.
NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, September 2010 report titled Distracted Driving and Driver, Roadway, and Environmental Factors.
“Conversing with a passenger was found as top of the list factor among non-driving activities that involved drivers’ interaction with internal sources of distraction. This was true irrespective of driver age and gender, or the speed limit zone, weather, and traffic flow conditions in which the drivers were driving.”
According to NHTSA’s “Traffic Safety Facts: Research Notes (DOT HS 811 379 Sep 2010):
“Of those people killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved reports of a cell phone as a distraction (18% of fatalities in distraction-related crashes).”
Applying the Data
Assuming the 2009 rate of cell phone as a distraction has remained unchanged at 18%, when applied to the total number of distraction-affected fatalities in 2010, we can postulate that the total number of vehicle fatalities in 2010 related directly to cell phone use is: 556.
Compare that number to the number of people killed not wearing seatbelts and you really start to see an intresting picture take shape: 556 vs. 10,547.
This means there were more than 3 times as many children (0-20 yrs of age) killed in accidents not wearing seatbelts (1,903) than the total number of people killed as a result of cell phone use (556).
While my investigative calculations may not be scientific, the overall theme remains the same: seat belts, seat belts, seat belts, seat belts. Where is the blueprint, the increased media promotion, the Twitter campaign for seatbelt safety? Why isn’t buckling up DOT’s Rasion de’tre? It’s the leading cause of motor vehicle fatalities at 51%. (Alcohol comes in at 2nd place, responsible for 31% of vehicle fatalities.)
In closing I want to clarify something. I am NOT saying distracted driving isn’t an issue. I’m simply stating that texting is a small part of distracted driving, which is a small problem in the grand scheme of ways in which a driver can end up dead behind the wheel.