SMART-Phone, DUMB-Driver: Crash-Data May Not Reflect the Trends – Part 4

by on March 1, 2012 · 6 comments

in Culture, Environment, Health, Life Events, Media, San Diego

By Christopher Dotson

For readers who are following this series, here’s the fourth and final installment of the article entitled, “Pushing the limits: SMART-Phone, DUMB-Driver”.  Here are the earlier installments: Part 1 , Part 2 , and Part 3.

Auto-Related Fatalities: An All-Time Low But . . .

In the April 2011 report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed the number of traffic-related fatalities in 2010 was the lowest since 1949. They cite a variety of factors which contributed to this improvement, such as increased awareness about the dangers of drunk and distracted driving, improvements in vehicle manufacturing and an increase in auto safety features – All may have contributed to the drop.

At the same time cell phone restrictions are taking effect, auto fatalities and injuries have been reduced, last year reaching an all-time low per miles traveled. Of course, cell phone purchases remained on the rise.

With fatalities decreasing and cell phone sales on the rise, some have cited this as evidence cell phone bans – restrictions which are not enforced uniformly in many states – have had little or no effect on auto fatalities.

“Google has announced that an incredible 750,000 Android smartphone and tablets are being activated every single day. . . .”

This statistic implies eight new Android devices are activated every second, and does not include the more popular Apple products. Like many statistics, the details are important to further any debate, such as geographic and unit break-down, built-in features, to name a few. For example, tablets can replace GPS units, cell phones, and personal DVD players, providing many more applications which are easily accessible by drivers.

Any debate concerning driver-distraction must continue evolving to match the pace of technology and integration. Soon, it will be common place when drivers send texts directly to their vehicles, while receiving updates directly from the vehicle’s on-board computer(s).

A Landmark Case Study

Here is a serious example, reported in numerous publications, which depicts the scenarios I have described and witnessed. Again, driver behaviorisms are crucial to this debate, as the following story demonstrates.

Just prior to an accident which occurred on August 5, 2010, near Gray Summit, Mo., the driver of a pickup truck that crashed into the back of a tractor truck had sent (and allegedly composed) six text messages. During the same period, the driver had, also, received five text messages. The investigation revealed all eleven text messages occurred within the eleven minute period just prior to the accident. Timestamp information for each text, and on-scene reports, appear to confirm the final text was received moments before the collision occurred.

Traveling at 55 mph, the driver slammed into the back of a tractor truck, and initiated a chain reaction, as a school bus was unable to slow before colliding with the pickup, followed by a second school bus colliding with the first bus. The 19-year old pickup driver was killed, along with one student who was riding in a school bus. Thirty-eight injuries were reported.

Most reports imply the driver was engaged in a text-based conversation at the moment of the incident. Again it seems unlikely that one thing or a single text message could have caused this tragedy. Rather, of all the facts presented, a roadway busy with trucks and school buses, we can be fairly certain the accident was caused by abusive texting: Eleven texts sent in the eleven minutes prior to the incident.

If only events had unfolded – even a little – differently.

New technology may not have prevented this tragedy, and we cannot know the exact scenario which played out that tragic day, hence new “distracted driver” metrics are being collected at crash scenes.

Uniform, expanded enforcement of existing laws, along with public awareness and driver education should help prevent future similar accidents.

“Distraction-Affected Crashes”: A New DOT Metric

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), in 2010 “distraction-affected crashes” killed 3,092 people.

The newest crash-scene metric, “Distraction-Affected Crashes” is intended to focus on distractions most likely to result in crashes, including cell phone and texting usage, among other in-car devices and events. Descriptions how regulations might be implemented based upon new metrics and restrictions were not available or vague.

DOT officials have cited non-uniform interpretations of crash statistics and metrics, such as “Distraction-Related” measurements, do not accurately depict current trends. Despite the 2010 statistics, officials indicated in-car distractions are more likely to be increasing.

Other data confirms that driver distraction continues to be a significant safety problem. For example, in a survey we’re releasing today, more than three-quarters of the drivers told us they answer calls on all, some, or most trips when they’re behind the wheel.  They also said there are very few driving situations when they would not use the phone or text, and that they rarely consider traffic situations when deciding to use their phone. That behavior poses a safety threat to everyone on the road.

And, because people are reluctant to admit distracted driving at a crash site, NHTSA believes the number of crashes attributed to distraction could be higher.”


Today, thirty-five states have banned texting while driving. Three years ago only eight states had texting bans.
Statistics Belie Actual Events – The Future’s Uncertain

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood believes distracted driving remains “under reported”. LaHood cites two recent NHTSA studies which he says indicate when “laws are diligently enforced” the number of crashes decrease.

Technology is always adding new data points which can be audited to determine root-cause. On-scene investigation techniques are clearly evolving, along with new devices, to examine the raw data and statistics. For example, if an in-car device is accessible to the driver, and a real-time operating system is running at the time of an accident, further investigations will be conducted to correlate events, and corroborate reports from victims and witnesses.

For a single crash-scene, future investigations might examine cell phone usage patterns for all involved parties. As more device-types become available, such as tablet-based phones and GPS, these too will be examined to determine driver-related actions prior to an incident.

The future role of in-car technology is uncertain.

Consider, too, modern materials, advancements in lighting, improvements to roadways and structures, plus modern auto safety and design features – All are contributing factors when determining overall increases or decreases in public and traffic safety.

In-car technology is a relatively new phenomenon. In the coming years, new studies and additional crash data may give us better understanding how in-car technology may cause accidents.

The More Things Change. . . .

At the same time the NHTSA is calling for adding more technology to all vehicles, such as rearview cameras, the NTSB is considering bans against all in-car electronic gadgets which are capable of distracting drivers. Opponents indicate they will fight such bans, many of whom prefer education policies and more consistent enforcement of existing laws.

Of course, existing cell phone restrictions would not have prevented my own near-miss, and additional device restrictions might not have prevented it, either.

Effective “behind the wheel” communications

It is not known if recent cell phone restrictions are improving driving conditions, as DOT and NTSB officials call for more uniform enforcement of existing laws, as well as new bans, along with the studies and measurements intended to collect more distraction-related crash data.

Such studies and debates are important, as existing statistics do not focus on myriad combinations and varying usage patterns for today’s Top-1000 gadgets. And more in-car technology is becoming available on the horizon.

The heart of the debate will ultimately center on differing types of labor-intensive/thought-intensive operations, their duration, and the frequency of events.

Even while new technologies provide safer “communications behind the wheel”, I suspect a lot of us will be forced to continue using The Most Affordable form of behind the wheel communications: One arm, one hand, and one finger.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Ernie McCray March 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I’d feel much safer if people just kept their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel and their minds on getting home alive without killing somebody.


avatar christopher dotson March 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Right? Time to update our stories.
Let’s see more hands, less finger.


avatar unWASHEdwalmaRtthONG March 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm

It’s all a matter of agility & dexterity & practice. One winter back in the 80’s I once had my car towed off the mountain at Kirkwood in a blizzard. The driver was drinking coffee, eating a bagel, shifting gears, talking to us & to his dog, and he smoothly & safely got us down to Tahoe City. I bet he could have used a cell phone also during that snowy ride had they been invented.


avatar Chris Dotson March 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Given the growing number of potential in-car events, that is, with a growing list and varying types of distractions (coupled with frequency and duration metrics), we may never have the ability to effectively audit the actual cause of near-misses, or non-injury accidents, or deaths which can be attributed directly to in-car distractions.


avatar bodysurferbob March 2, 2012 at 9:59 pm

i’m real proud to be able to roll a joint while driving.


avatar Anna Daniels March 3, 2012 at 10:47 am

Chris- an interesting series! I don’t drive, but as a pedestrian, I also have issues with distracted drivers. After too many near misses, I don’t cross a street until I have made eye contact with a driver trying to make a right turn while only watching for traffic on the left and talking on a cell phone. As a pedestrian, I can flip two birds. :)


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