Highway safety analysts use adjectives like “counter intuitive,” “shocking,” and “alarming” when referring to the fact that after three decades of overall declines in traffic fatalities, deaths resulting from road accidents have increased 14 percent over two years from 2014 to 2016. And they’re right.
The truly startling aspect of this road safety downturn is that the brunt of the increased fatalities have been borne by bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians; the latter group seeing a whopping 22 percent increase in traffic deaths over the two-year period. Researchers are now pointing to the rise of distracted driving – particularly texting while driving and using handheld devices while driving for other purposes – as the likely cause.
The Emerging Threat
The usual factors cited when car accidents are on the rise—longer trips, excessive speed, drunk driving—have all seen a slight uptick, but nowhere near the recent percentage increase in fatalities. Some of them, looking elsewhere for clues to the mystery, have noticed that the crash statistics may be more in direct alignment with increases in drivers’ smartphone use and other distracted driving stats. And it’s not just that we’re using our phones more while we drive. It’s how we use them: less for talking and more for texting while driving, sending messages on Instagram, reading and generally doing everything but keeping our eyes glued to the road.
Statistics compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) report very few traffic deaths linked to mobile phones (just 448 in 2015), but there is growing consensus that the NHTSA’s numbers are too low; perhaps way too low. For one thing, a recent study showed that only about half of the fatalities known to involve mobile-phone use were coded as such into NHTSA’s database. And only 11 states use accident report forms that include a field for police to tick off mobile-phone distraction. In other words, the distracted driving stats potentially linking crashes to phones are already severely suppressed before they get to the NHTSA.
Vision and Attention Impairment
Without better data, we can’t be sure why pedestrian and cyclist fatalities have risen more dramatically than those for automobile occupants. One theory suggests that mobile-phone distraction differs from, say, driving under the influence or speeding, in that the driver may be in better control of the vehicle, yet limiting his or her field of vision and/or reaction time by dividing their attention between the phone and the road. Given those limitations, he or she is more likely to have visual awareness of larger objects on the road (cars), and less likely to notice cyclists in their peripheral vision, or pedestrians suddenly darting into traffic.
Current Safety Measures
Almost all states (including New York) now ban texting while driving; only 15 states (New York is also one) prohibit drivers from using hand-held electronic devices (see New York State Vehicle & Traffic law § 1225-d). There are no states that prohibit all cellphone use for all drivers, though some states ban all use by “novice” drivers and/or school-bus drivers. However, both visual evidence and driver surveys suggest that these bans are widely ignored.
There is evolving technology to block phones from sending or receiving text messages while driving, but most of these “do not disturb” features can be disabled. So, the grim reality is that distracted driving probably isn’t going away anytime soon.
As a bicyclist or pedestrian, your safety in traffic is always a concern given the size, speed and sheer number of automobiles competing for road space. And it has always been up to you to guard against the possibility that a given driver could be impaired or driving recklessly; the increasing use of cell phones by drivers only intensifies the danger.
Besides “watching out for the other guy,” it is also imperative that pedestrians and cyclists follow the rules of the road and not take careless risks. That also includes pedestrians—and even bicyclists—chatting away on their own phones as they walk or ride in traffic, potentially distracted from the dangers around them.