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Here’s What’s Wrong with Distracted Driving Data

This article looks at why federal data on distracted driving tends to drastically underreport the issue.

Distracted driving has become a big topic of conversation in recent years due to ubiquitous phone usage. As a result, most states have banned the use of phones while behind the wheel. Safety experts warn that using a phone while driving could be as dangerous as drunk driving. With so much talk of distracted driving, one might assume there is strong federal data tracking motor vehicle accidents caused by cell-phone-wielding, distracted drivers. Unfortunately, as Bloomberg points out, distracted driving accidents are woefully underreported in federal reports.1

Why federal data is skewed

In October 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) released its summary of 2016 motor vehicle accidents and arrived at a surprising conclusion: while overall traffic fatalities across the United States increased by 5.6%, distracted driving deaths declined by 2.2%.

In fact, distracted driving and drowsy driving deaths were the only two categories of traffic fatalities that declined in 2016, while other categories such as speeding, motorcycle deaths, lack of seatbelt usage, and pedestrian deaths increased.

A decline in distracted driving deaths would typically be a cause for celebration; but the statistics here demonstrate unreliable federal data on the distracted driving. According to Bloomberg, the NHTSA data shows that just 1.4% of all fatal road accidents are due to cell phone usage, a figure that appears very low, considering that one study found that drivers use their phones on approximately 88% of all road trips.1

Why is the data so inaccurate?

The National Safety Council (“NSC”) also studied the NHTSA’s data and found that about half of all fatal crashes that were linked to phone usage were not coded as such by the NHTSA.2 Another sign that the NHTSA data is simply wrong about distracted driving is that in more than half of all fatal crashes the driver was driving straight down the road before veering off the road or out of his or her lane and causing an accident. That sort of driving behavior is most often due to a driver looking away from the road and down at their phone.

State data is equally bad. While some states, such as Tennessee, do a good job of tracking distracted driving accidents, most do not. As a result, many accidents that are caused by distracted driving are classified as something else in police accident reports, which in turn impacts the federal data, because the federal data relies on the states’ reporting, which naturally will affect the federal data based on its level of precision and accuracy. Deficiencies in data is a concern because the data is used to determine funding for various traffic safety initiatives.

Justice for accident victims

Regardless of data reporting, common sense leaves it undisputed that distracted driving is a menace on the roads. Those who h ave been injured in an accident that may have been caused by a distracted driver should contact an attorney as soon as possible to preserve their rights. An attorney can provide invaluable legal counsel to accident victims and potentially hold the parties at fault liable for their actions.

The trial lawyers at Coughlin & Gerhart know how to prove distracted driving in court. They have successfully recovered compensation for clients who have been seriously injured because of distracted driving. Distracted drivers and their insurance companies must be held accountable so that it does not happen again.


1 Kyle Stock, Lance Lambert, & David Ingold, Smartphones Are Killing Americans, But Nobody’s Counting, Bloomberg (Oct. 17, 2017, 4:00 AM), .

2 Press Release, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, USDOT Releases 2016 Fatal Traffic Crash Data (Oct. 6, 2017), available at .