It is estimated that of the total fatal car crashes using cell phones in 2011, only 52% were properly coded in the national database as involving cell phone use. This is due to a variety of issues, but the biggest issue is the misrepresentation of the risk of cell phone distraction.
Studies have derived that there are three levels of knowledge about cell phone crashes.
- Known – Driver admitted phone use or there is clear evidence of cell phone use.
- Suspected – Driver didn’t admit to phone use, despite evidence and suspicion.
- Unknown – One car crash, no witnesses, driver deceased.
Data can be lost in a variety of ways before it is reported. NSC analysis found that most often, cell phone usage reports were not included in the original police crash reports.
Cell phone distracted car crash data is compiled at the following points. Errors and missing factors are found at each level.
- Local – Scenes of the Crashes – Data is gathered at the scene using drivers, passengers and witnesses. This is commonly where usage data is lost. Data is also recorded in police reports.
- State – State Agencies – Paper forms are manually coded into electronic systems and crash data from multiple source documents are recorded for national uniformity.
- National – Federal FARS Program – Crashing involving fatalities are compiled by NHTSA’s FARS at more than 50 state sites into one standardized national database.
In an effort to begin combating cell phone distractions, it is necessary for the public to understand that fatal-crashes are not accurately reported. Proper reporting directly affects prevention priorities, media attention, legislation, and more. The lack of accurate information in regard to cell phone distracted accidents indicates that policy makers should consider the issues as a greater issue.
NSC offers the following recommendations:
- National distracted driving and cell phone crash statistics should be described as the minimum number collected and reported by a process full of limitations.
- Policy makers should assume that cell phone involvement in crashes is substantially greater than shown by crash statistics when making policy decisions.
- NHTSA should conduct a feasibility study to determine if an under-reporting correction is possible for cell phone use, similar to the imputed data on blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for drivers who were not tested for BAC or whose test results are unknown.