May 7, 2013

Study finds distracted driving deaths underreported

Joan Lowy / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

The National Safety Council report

NHTSA has acknowledged weaknesses in its distracted driving data and says it's been working with states and police to strengthen reporting of accidents involving distracted driving. So far, 35 states have told the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety agencies, that they have adopted model accident reporting forms that include a box for officers to check whether cellphone use was involved.

Reluctance to admit the behavior, lack of witnesses, and in some cases the death of the driver all make it hard to collect full information, the agency says. "That's why we're working with states and law-enforcement agencies to add more precise categories to police reports," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a statement.

Kelsey Raffaele's mother, Bonnie, began lobbying the Michigan state legislature for tougher restrictions on cellphone use by novice drivers a year after her daughter's death in January 2010. She said some legislators told her the problem wasn't that big, pointing to the federal data.

"Every time I testified I would tell them Kelsey's crash was not reported as cellphone use, and she's just one of thousands of other crashes that are not on the books ... as being cell-phone (related)," said Raffaele, of Sault Ste. Marie. "I would tell them, 'The statistics are much higher than you think they are.' "

Raffaele eventually won the changes she sought.

State laws are a patchwork. Ten states and the District of Columbia require hands-free phones if a driver is going to make calls. No state bans all cellphone use for all drivers, but 36 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by novice drivers. Currently, 39 states and D.C. ban text messaging for all drivers. An additional 6 states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, has urged states to ban all drivers from texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone behind the wheel except in emergencies, saying the practices are simply too dangerous to be allowed.

It may not be possible to ever get complete reporting of cellphone involvement as long as reliance on driver admission is a factor, the safety council said.

Instead, the council is urging NHTSA to study whether it's feasible to develop a way to estimate cellphone-distracted crashes. The government already makes national estimates on drunken-driving accidents where data are lacking.

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