Cellphones can track what we say and write, where we go, what we buy and what we search on the internet. But they still aren’t being used to track one of the biggest public health threats: crashes caused by drivers distracted by the phones.
More than a decade after federal and state governments seized on the dangers that cellphone use while driving posed and began enacting laws to stop it, there remains no definitive database of the number of crashes or fatalities caused by cellphone distraction. Safety experts say that current estimates most likely understate a worsening problem.
The absence of clear data comes as collisions are rising. Car crashes recorded by the police rose 16% from 2020 to 2021, to 16,700 a day from 14,400 a day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. In 2021, nearly 43,000 Americans died in crashes, a 16-year high.
In 2021, only 377 fatal wrecks — just under 1% — were reported as having involved a cellphone-distracted driver, according to the traffic agency. About 8% of the 2.5 million nonfatal crashes that year involved a cellphone, according to the highway agency’s data.
But those figures do not capture all cellphone distraction; they include only crashes in which a police report specifically mentions such distraction. Often, safety experts said, cellphone use goes unmentioned in such reports because it typically relies on a driver to admit distraction, a witness to identify it or, in still rarer cases, the use of cellphone records or other phone forensics that definitively show distraction.
Police can access cellphone records, but that is a cumbersome process that requires a subpoena to guard driver privacy. Even then, further analysis must be done to link the driver’s phone activity with the timing of a crash.