And they may be causing the deaths of thousands of hapless pedestrians
EVER SINCE Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007 the small digital screen has become a ubiquitous part of life. Today in America there are some 260m smartphones in use, one for every adult. But the omnipresence of the device appears to be behind a recent increase in pedestrian deaths on America’s roads.
At first glance, Americans appear to be restrained when using their smartphone while driving. One survey conducted by the Department of Transport (DoT) reckons that around 5% of drivers used their mobile phones behind the wheel in 2017. DoT researchers arrive at this figure by observing drivers’ mobile-phone use in situ at randomly allocated stopping places. By contrast Zendrive, a startup, employs software that is able to remotely track drivers’ use of their mobile phones. Using data on 60bn journeys taken in 2018 Zendrive reckons that the true rate of smartphone use behind the wheel may be as high as 60%.
To what extent is distracted driving causing people to crash more frequently? Data released by the DoT last month suggest that over the past five years smartphones have caused just 2,105 fatal crashes (1.2% of the total). But there is reason to believe that this figure undercounts the true toll as not all police agencies are able to report the true cause of a crash. About 20% of the victims of distracted-driving fatalities are not drivers or passengers, but other road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
While cars have become progressively safer thanks to airbags, side-impact bars and the like, pedestrians remain just as vulnerable to reckless driving. Their vulnerability appears to be demonstrated in the data. Between 1994 and 2009 the rate of deaths on American roads fell by an average rate of 2.6% for motor-vehicle users and by 3.2% for pedestrians. However, since 2009, while deaths from those in vehicles have flat-lined, pedestrian deaths have risen steadily. They are now 36% higher than their 2009 rate.
Not all these deaths can be attributed to smartphone use and distracted driving. Higher sales of SUVs, which are bigger and more deadly vehicles, are partly to blame, too. And it is likely that some of the pedestrians who are killed are distracted by their smartphones when they should be focused on safely crossing the street. Whatever the proximate cause, a back-of-the-envelope calculation by The Economist finds that if pedestrian deaths had continued their secular decline since 2009 an additional 20,000 deaths could have been averted.
As things stand just 18 states in America ban the handling of mobile phones while driving. North Carolina is the latest state to be considering a ban and evidence suggests that it would save lives. Research published last month finds that states that banned texting-while-driving reduced emergency-room visits from car crashes by 4%, equivalent to 1,600 fewer ER visits per state per year. The more Americans focus on the road ahead, the safer everyone will be.