Putting a number on cell distraction deaths

Researchers looked at the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and matched it against trends in cell phone use and texting volume.

Some 16,000 drivers died due to simple distraction between 2001-2007, and since the rise of cell phone texting that toll has been rising.

The number comes from an analysis at the University of North Texas school of public health, published in the American Journal of Public Health.

(Picture from ZDNet's Smartphone and cellphone blog, by Matthew Miller.)

Fernando Wilson and Jim Stimpson looked at records from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which records the causes of all U.S. road fatalities, then matched it against trends in cell phone use and texting volume using a regression analysis.

After declining from 1999 to 2005, fatalities from distracted driving increased 28% after 2005, rising from 4572 fatalities to 5870 in 2008. Crashes increasingly involved male drivers driving alone in collisions with roadside obstructions in urban areas. By use of multivariate analyses, we predicted that increasing texting volumes resulted in more than 16000 additional road fatalities from 2001 to 2007.

To me the text is more interesting than the number. When I see road signs knocked down, or telephone poles crashed into car roofs, I am conditioned to think the driver was drunk.

Maybe not. A 2005 episode of Mythbusters found the distraction of even talking on a cell phone to be equivalent to that from driving above the legal alcohol limit.

While some 30 states now have laws against texting while driving, enforcement is spotty, and as the experiment showed other forms of distraction can be just as deadly.

Personally I have long fantasized about GPS-based systems under which cars might drive themselves after drivers failed an in-car breathalyzer test. Unfortunately current GPS systems are accurate to, at best, 1-3 meters.

Europe's Galileo system is hoping for accuracy within 1-2 centimeters (that's less than .8 inches) when it's launched in 2013. That may be enough for driving if other drivers are alerted to the system's use, maybe by flashing lights on the car.

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