Phones At The Wheel: A Deep Dive Into Distracted Driving

The US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took until October of 2017 to release its exact fatality numbers from 2016, so don’t hold your breath for the 2017 to come out anytime soon. But the 2016 numbers are telling — and so are the 2017 estimates.

Jens Rother /

In 2016, USDOT reports, 37,461 people died on United States roads. It’s an increase of 5.6 percent from the calendar year before it — and the most deadly year on record. Fortune says it was the deadliest year in more than a decade, and reminds us that USDOT isn’t counting the seriously injured, a number which the National Safety Council pegs at a staggering 4.6 million.

The NSC estimates deaths for January through June in 2017 at 18,930 — a 2 percent drop from 2016, but still up 8 percent from the 2015 figure. We’re set to hit about the same numbers last year as the year before, with perhaps a marginal drop.

Distractions-Related Deaths

The USDOT says that as for the cause of the fatalities, “distraction-related deaths”, or texting, calling, or general cell phone use contributing to a motor vehicle death, were actually down 2.2 percent.

Fortune, on the other hand, says, “Lower gas prices and and increased motor-vehicle mileage combined with risky activities like speeding and driving while texting is proving deadly for American drivers.”

The NSC says that, far from dropping, the number of fatalities from distracted driving is on the rise — 26 states have crash reports that lack the fields to report texting, and 32 states don’t have a field to record hands-free cell phone use. No state is capturing advanced driver assistance technologies (think navigation systems). According to the NSC, “There is strong evidence to support that underreporting of driver cell phone use in crashes is resulting in a substantial under-estimation of the magnitude of this public safety threat.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — according to Slate, the USDOT attributes 9 percent of all driving deaths to distracted driving. The NSC claims that cell phones are involved in 27 percent of all car crashes.

Taking Steps

With statistics like this, people have tried to curb distracted driving. Now 47 states have banned texting while driving — and all but 4 have what’s called primary enforcement, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration, meaning the police can pull you over for texting alone.

Furthermore, 15 states ban handheld cell phone use, and while no state bans phones altogether, 38 states and DC ban phone use for new drivers. DC and 20 states ban it for school bus drivers (so yes, your kid’s school bus driver might be tooling down the highway chatting to her mom on her iPhone). Slate reports that hands-free devices are proven to be just as dangerous as handheld ones, by the way, and some studies have shown that using your phone basically makes you drive like you’re drunk.

Tech Solutions?

There have been tech solutions. Phase I was implemented in 2013 under the Obama adminstration, were voluntary, and only covered devices “originally installed in the vehicle, such as touch-screen infotainment systems for phone calls and navigation,” explains Slate.

Phase II was set to start this past fall, and targeted phones themselves. According to USDOT, “The guidelines encourage manufacturers to implement features such as pairing, where a portable device is linked to a vehicle’s infotainment system, as well as Driver Mode, which is a simplified user interface. Both pairing and Driver Mode will reduce the potential for unsafe driver distraction by limiting the time a driver’s eyes are off the road, while at the same time preserving the full functionality of these devices when they are used at other times.”

The electronics industry didn’t like it, so they started sending letters to Trump’s cabinet. Complaints included: how would the phone discriminate between passengers and drivers, the regulations will stifle innovation, and the tech will be hard to implement. The Trump administration’s set to scrap them.

Something, though, is clearly needed. Instead, we’ll have to resort to the tips, like those offered for defending yourself against distracted drivers from They recommend that when confronted with someone who may be using a phone, texting, or otherwise electronically distracted, that you keep your distance. Pull over and call the police if it seems necessary.

Oh — and don’t become a distracted driver yourself. So put down that phone and drive.

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent lives in a medium-sized city in the South with her three children, three dogs, and patient husband. She works as a staff writer for Scary Mommy, and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post and on

Trending News

Follow Us