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Study Finds Cellphone-Related Fatal Accidents Are Underreported

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Head down, distraction up, courtesy Fastlane

Head down, distraction up, courtesy Fast Lane.

A new study by the National Safety Council (NSF) finds that auto accidents involving cellphones are “vastly underreported” in national statistics on fatal automobile crashes, reports Larry Copeland for USA TODAY. The NSF, an advocacy group, said that the underreporting makes it appear that distracted driving is less of a problem that it actually is, and impedes the passage of tougher laws, writes Associated Press (AP) in an article appearing on The Washington Post’s “The Fed Page.”

To conduct the study, which was partly paid for by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, the NSF reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 in which there was strong evidence that the driver had been using a cellphone, AP writes. In the case of the 2011 crashes, only 52% of those likely involving cellphones were coded in the National Highway Traffic Administration’s (NHTSA’s) accident database as indeed involving cellphones, the study found.

And in 2010, only 35% of fatal crashes likely involving cellphones had been coded, and in 2009, only 8%. “Even when drivers admitted to authorities that they were using a phone during an accident in which someone was killed, about half the cases weren’t recorded that way in the database, the council said,” AP writes.

Regarding the fact that NHTSA’s database shows only 385 traffic deaths in 2011 that involved cellphones (out of 32,000 traffic deaths for that year), AP writes:

‘We believe the number of crashes involving cellphone use is much greater than what is being reported,’ said Janet Foetscher, the safety council’s president and CEO. ‘Many factors, from drivers not admitting cellphone 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.’

The safety administration’s database is the bible of traffic crash statistics, but it depends on accident information gathered by states from police reports.

‘Most people assume unknowingly that if it is federal data, it must be accurate,’ said John Ulczycki, the council’s vice president.

USA TODAY writes that the National Safety Council estimates that 25% of all motor vehicle accidents involve cellphone use. However, the NSC found large differences in how states coded cellphone-related crashes. In Tennessee, for example, there were 71 fatal crashes involving cellphones in 2010, and 93 in 2011, but in New York, which has a much larger population, the reports indicated only 10 such crashes in 2010 and only one in 2011, USA TODAY writes.

Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, told USA TODAY that cellphone-related crashes are underreported, that the amount of underreporting varies from state to state. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “As a data-driven agency, we recognize that there are challenges from a data collection standpoint and that’s why we’re working with the states and law enforcement agencies to add more precise categories to police reports.”

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