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NSC Study Concludes Crashes Caused by Drivers on Cellphones Under-Reported

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A new study by the National Safety Council (NSC) has concluded that the numbers of motor vehicle crashes involving cellphones are "vastly under-reported" in national statistics on fatal automobile crashes. The group reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 where evidence indicated driver cellphone use. They compared their finding to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), the national database of fatal motor vehicle crashes and their causes, to see how the government had classified those same accidents. In 2011, only 52 percent of those crashes were coded in national data as having cell phone use involved. In 2010, it was 35 percent, and in 2009, 8 percent.

Researchers independently confirmed that those crashes were cellphone-related through means such as the driver admitting it, a caller or texter on the other end during the crash reporting cellphone use, a passenger reporting the driver's cellphone use or police finding an unfinished message on the phone at the crash site. Even in fatal crashes where the driver admitted to using a cell phone, the NSC found that in 2011, only half of those were coded in FARS data as involving a cell phone.

The NSC study also found a large range of differences in how states collect and code cellphone-related crashes, which is then all compiled and imputed into FARS. This difference in procedures may be resulting in inaccurate statistics.

For example, Tennessee reported 71 fatal crashes involving cellphones in 2010 and 93 in 2011; New York, which has a much larger population, reported ten such crashes in 2010 and one in 2011.

In 2011, Texas reported 48 fatal crashes involving cellphones; Louisiana reported eight, Arkansas seven, Oklahoma twelve and New Mexico none.

A spokesperson for the NHTSA says the agency is working with states and law enforcement agencies to add more precise categories to police reports.

The NSC estimates, based on risk and prevalence of cell phone use, as reported by research and NHTSA, that 25 percent of all crashes are caused by cell phone use. Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association disagrees with that estimate, basing his statement on NHTSA data. “The most recent NHTSA data indicated that 10% of all fatal crashes involve distraction and of those, 1.2 percent are cellphone-related. So, even accounting for underreporting, the 25 percent number doesn't sound plausible,” said Adkins.