The No. 1 Cause of Traffic Fatalities? It’s Not Texting

It's driving.
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(Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

I don’t yet have a copy of Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting for the New York Times, however, I’m afraid it’s unlikely to do justice to the complexity of the relationship between mobile phones and motor vehicle accidents. Worse, I fear it distracts attention from the most important cause of traffic fatalities: driving.

A BAD SIGN

Recently, Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teenagers than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.

In fact, 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, my math gets me 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book

In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or whoever someone there got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsday number of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per-day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cell phone effects).

After I contacted him to complain about that 11-teens-per-day statistic, Richtel pointed out that the page I linked to is run by his publisher, not him, and that he had asked them to “deal with that stat.” I now see that the page includes a footnote that says, “Statistic taken from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Fatality Facts.” I don’t think that’s true, however, since the “Fatality Facts” page for teenagers still shows 2,228 teens (passengers and drivers) killed in 2012. Richtel added in his email to me:

As I’ve written in previous writings, the cell phone industry also takes your position that fatality rates have fallen. It’s a fair question. Many safety advocates point to air bags, anti-lock brakes and wider roads — billions spent on safety — driving down accident rates (although accidents per miles driven is more complex). These advocates say that accidents would’ve fallen far faster without mobile phones and texting. And they point out that rates have fallen far faster in other countries (deaths per 100,000 drivers) that have tougher laws. In fact, the U.S. rates, they say, have fallen less far than most other countries. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this. I think it’s a worthy issue for conversation.

I appreciate his response. Now I’ll read the book before complaining about him any more.

THE SHOCKING TRUTH

I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.

That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than the TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right—how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on make-up; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)

Beyond the general complaint about misleading people and abusing our ignorance, however, the texting scare distracts us (I know, it’s ironic) from the giant problem staring us in the face: our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).

To illustrate this, I went through all the trouble of getting data on mobile phone subscriptions by state, to compare with state traffic fatality rates, only to find this: nothing:

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What does predict deaths? Driving. This isn’t a joke. Sometimes the obvious answer is obvious because it’s the answer:

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If you’re interested, I also put both of these variables in a regression, along with age and sex composition of the states, and the percentage of employed people who drive to work. Only the miles and drive-to-work rates were correlated with vehicle deaths. Mobile phone subscriptions had no effect at all.

ALSO, PICK-UPS?

Failing to find a demographic predictor that accounts for any of the variation after that explained by miles driven, I tried one more thing. I calculated each state’s deviation from the line predicted by miles driven (for example Alaska, where they only drive 6.3 thousand miles per person, is predicted to have 4.5 deaths per 100,000 but they actually have 8.1, putting that state 3.6 points above the line). Taking those numbers and pouring them into the Google correlate tool, I asked what people in those states with higher-than-expected death rates are searching for. And the leading answer is large, American pick-up trucks. Among the 100 searches most correlated with this variable, 10 were about Chevy, Dodge, or Ford pick-up trucks, like “2008 chevy colorado” (r = 0.68), shown here:

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I could think of several reasons why places where people are into pick-up trucks have more than their predicted share of fatal accidents.

So, to sum up: Texting while driving is dangerous and getting more common as driving is getting safer, but driving still kills thousands of Americans every year, making it the umbrella social problem under which texting may be one contributing factor.

I used this analogy before, and the parallel isn’t perfect, but the texting panic reminds me of the 1970s “Crying Indian” ad I used to see when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. The ad famously pivoted from industrial pollution to littering in the climactic final seconds:

Conclusion: Keep your eye on the ball.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “The No. 1 Cause of Traffic Fatalities? It’s Not Texting, It’s Driving.”

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