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Distracted Drivers Increase Highway Death Rate?
May 24, 2006
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D.
The release of two studies on driving on the same day led to all sorts of confusion

In April a confluence of new data led USA Today to examine the issue of highway death. The first set of data came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and showed that an increase in highway death rate for the first time in 20 years.

But this proved much less interesting than the second study, which happened to be released on the same day. As USAT reported:

The news came the same day as a report showing that driving distracted is a more serious problem than previously known. The report by the NHTSA and Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute said nearly 80% of crashes and near-crashes involve driver inattention up to three seconds before the incident.

The rest of the article was devoted to examining these findings and how they might lead to new laws. And the way it was written left readers with the implication that the increase in the death rate had something to do with drivers being distracted.

But the distracted driving announcement, while important, had much less do to with death by driving, than it did about “near crashes”. According to the NHTSA data, a full 39 percent of deaths were a direct cause of drunk driving. And of the people who died, 55 percent were not wearing seat belts or other restraints, as compared to 18 percent of the general population. Highway death is clearly not mainly about distraction.

Even the reported increases from 2004 to 2005 in highway deaths amount to a whopping 1.3 percent. Not much to write home about, and certainly within the range of random fluctuation from year to year. Indeed, even the U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta noted that this national tragedy of traffic-related deaths happens “every year”.

If one wanted to look at serious trends within the small increase, the impressive figures lie in the fact that drunk driving deaths went up by 1.7 percent, and motorcycle deaths went up by 7.7 percent, for a total of 100 percent since 1997. And it’s not bad to announce some of the good news: injuries went down by just over 4 percent since 2004.

USA Today also included a chart suggesting the level of risk one engages in participating in distracting activities, such as putting on makeup or reading in the car. The implication is that these activities are the cause of the modest rise in highway deaths. While no one advocates driving distracted, USA Today distracted us from the really preventable aspects of traffic deaths.

As Mineta said, “We have the tools to prevent this tragedy – every car has a safety belt, every motorcycle rider should have a helmet and everyone should have enough sense to never drive while impaired".