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Deaths, burns, brain injuries, broken limbs: The human cost of distracted driving is mounting

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

Highway fatalities are on the rise again — 46,000 in the U.S. in 2022, up 22%, according to numbers released last week. How many of those deaths involved distracted driving?

"It's much bigger than the data show," said Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Data collection methods are so riddled with problems, he said, that reliable estimates are difficult if not impossible.

But if those methods aren't improved, and soon, Landsberg said, the carnage induced by unsafe use of cellphones and other forms or distracted driving will continue.

"This is an epidemic," he said. And it's not just deaths. "Everybody talks about fatalities, but there are hundreds of thousands or more life-altering injuries — broken limbs, brain injuries, horrible burns. This doesn't have to happen. These crashes are not accidents. They are completely preventable."

Landsberg is part of the National Distracted Driving Coalition, a group formed in 2021 that's redoubling effort to try to fix the data problem to help persuade cellphone makers, motor vehicle manufacturers, software companies, lawmakers and distracted drivers themselves that the problem constitutes a public health crisis that all parties have let slide.

The group is also attempting to do what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the nation's top auto safety regulator, has been struggling with: take advantage of new technologies including machine learning to better measure the prevalence of distracted driving on U.S. highways and to make serious efforts to reduce it.


Lawmakers at the state and federal levels often resist tougher laws on distracted driving, said Robyn Robertson, chief executive of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, a member of the distracted driving coalition, in part because drivers addicted to their phones aren't clamoring for them. Neither drivers nor lawmakers understand the severity of the problems, according to the NDDC.

"If we can't show it's a problem then we can't focus attention and resources on fixing it," Robertson said.

The most recent figures available from NHTSA show that of 38,824 highway deaths in pandemic year 2020, 3,142 were due to distracted driving — less than 10%. NHTSA tallied 324,652 distracted driving injuries.

Among experts in the field, NHTSA's numbers are widely regarded as gross underestimates. The National Distracted Driving Coalition estimates the actual numbers lie between 25% to 30%, but no one can say for sure.


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