CDC Survey Seems To Undermine Idea That Texting While Driving Is An Epidemic


imageA week or so ago the Centers for Disease Control released the results of a survey looking at risky teen behaviors. What got headlines here in North Dakota is the fact that we have the second largest percentage of teenagers in the country who are guilty of texting or emailing while driving (second only to South Dakota).

Nationally, 41 percent of teenagers said they had texted or emailed while behind the wheel in the last month. In North Dakota, that percentage was 59 percent. In South Dakota, it was 61 percent.

That sounds bad. Certainly the Bismarck Tribune thinks so, writing in an editorial this morning that this is “a serious problem.” “Texting while driving is notoriously dangerous,” the paper opines.

But is it?

Those percentages of behind-the-wheel texting are really high, but how much of that texting and emailing while driving is resulting in actual car crashes? Not much according to data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration or the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

Law enforcement reported 18,356 crashes on North Dakota roads in 2012, according to Jamie Olson of the NDDOT. Of that number, cell phone use was a “contributing factor” in just 165 crashes, less than one percent of the total. Even if added to an additional 36 crashes attributed to the use of non-phone electronic devices such as GPS units and DVD players, the crash total rises to just 201 crashes — or 1.09 percent of all crashes.

By comparison, distractions in the car — such as eating or interacting with other passengers — contributed to 660 total crashes.

That state number for distraction by cell phones jibes with national statistics. Cell phone use was a factor in just 1.2 percent of fatal crashes and 0.98 percent of all crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Distracted Driving report from 2012, the latest year for which data is available.

To be sure, texting or emailing while you’re driving isn’t safe and you shouldn’t do it. But it’s also not the epidemic some have made it out to be. In fact, it appears far less dangerous than other in-car distractions like radios, food and other passengers.

Some would argue that the low number of crashes attributed to texting/emailing is a result of the difficulties in detecting that sort of phone use before a crash. But it’s no more difficult than ascertaining whether or not someone was changing radio stations or rubber-necking something outside the car.

Again, we should avoid distractions while driving. This is especially true of our youngest and least experienced drivers. But we need to stop pretending as though cell phone use is somehow worse than other distractions in the car.