NHTSA unveils new measure of distracted driving fatalities

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday, Dec. 8, unveiled a new measure of fatalities related to distracted driving called “distraction-affected crashes.” Introduced for 2010 as part of a broader effort by the agency to refine its data collection to get better information about the role of distraction in crashes, the new measure is designed to focus more narrowly on crashes in which a driver was most likely to have been distracted.

While NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System previously recorded a broad range of potential distractions, such as careless driving and a cell phone present in the vehicle, the new measure focuses on distractions that are most likely to affect crash involvement, such as distraction by dialing a cellular phone or texting and distraction by an outside person/event. New data released by NHTSA using its refined methodology show an estimated 3,092 fatalities in distraction-affected crashes in 2010.

The NHTSA effort to refine distraction data is similar to a step taken with alcohol information in FARS data for 2006. Prior to 2006, FARS reported “alcohol-related crashes,” which was defined as crashes in which a driver, pedestrian or bicyclist had a blood alcohol level of .01 or higher. In an effort to focus on crashes in which alcohol was most likely to be a causative factor, NHTSA introduced the new measure, “alcohol-impaired driving crashes,” with a more narrow definition including only those crashes in which a driver or motorcycle rider had a blood alcohol level of .08 or above, the legal limit in every state.

“Even as we celebrate the incredible gains we’re making in reducing traffic fatalities, we recognize our responsibility to improve our understanding of the dangers that continue to threaten drivers and passengers,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “That’s why NHTSA is working to refine the way we collect data on distracted driving and laying the groundwork for additional research to capture real-world information on this risky behavior.”

While the explicit change in methodology means the new measure cannot be compared to the 5,474 “distraction-related” fatalities reported in 2009, other NHTSA data offer some indication that driver distraction continues to be a significant problem. The agency’s nationwide observational survey of drivers in traffic remains unchanged between 2009 and 2010, with 5 percent of drivers seen talking on handheld phones. In addition, given ongoing challenges in capturing the scope of the problem – including individuals’ reluctance to admit behavior, lack of witnesses and in some cases the death of the driver – NHTSA believes the actual number of crashes that involve distracted driving could be higher.

A new national NHTSA survey offers additional insights into how drivers behave when it comes to texting and cell phone use while behind the wheel and their perceptions of the safety risks of distracted driving. Among the findings, more than three-quarters of drivers report that they are willing to answer calls on all, most or some trips. Drivers also report that they rarely consider traffic situations when deciding when to use their phone. While most drivers said they are willing to answer a call and many will send a text while driving, almost all of these same drivers reported that they would feel very unsafe as a passenger if their driver was sending or receiving text messages. More than one-third report that they would feel very unsafe if their driver was using a handheld phone.

“The findings from our new attitude survey help us understand why some people continue to make bad decisions about driving distracted, but what’s clear from all of the information we have is that driver distraction continues to be a major problem,” said Strickland. “We need to maintain our focus on this issue through education, laws, enforcement and vehicle design to help keep drivers’ attention on the road.”

NHTSA’s adoption of the new “distraction-affected crash” measure for the 2010 FARS data is one step in a continuing effort to focus in on driver distraction and separate it from other issues. As part of its commitment to reduce the problem of distracted driving, NHTSA will continue to look for improved data sources. While police reports of serious crashes are an important source, they are limited by the evidence available to the officer. As a result, the agency is working to optimize information from crash reports by improving reporting forms and officer training. In addition, NHTSA will analyze new data on driver distraction from a new naturalistic study in which about 2,000 cars will be fitted with cameras and other equipment that will record driver behavior over a period of two years. Researchers will be able to use these data to associate driver behaviors with crash involvement. Data from this study will be available in 2014.