Distracted driving gets big enforcement in ND, but is it really a problem?


By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

DISTRACTED ENFORCEMENT: North Dakota law officials are making a big show of enforcing the state’s distracted driving laws during April’s Distracted Driving Awareness month, but statistics show distracted driving becuase of cell phone use to be a small percentage of all crashes.

BISMARCK, N.D. — By now you’ve probably read the stories and seen the commercials. April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and in North Dakota law enforcement is making a big deal out of it.

Officers in Bismarck, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown and Minot are participating in what is being described as “high intensity” enforcement of a relatively new state law against sending electronic messages while driving.

“Drivers suspected of texting will be pulled over,” says a news release sent out by the Dickinson Police Department. “Officers will employ new tactics and increased patrols to identify and stop drivers who appear to be using a mobile device to text, email or access the Internet while driving.”

Officers from across the state will get additional training on distracted driving issues.

The increased enforcement is funded, in part, by a $459,000 federal grant to the N.D. Department of Transportation, according to department spokesman Jamie Olson. But given the amount of tax dollars and law enforcement time involved, how big of a problem is cell phone use in cars?

Not that big, judging by the state’s crash statistics.

Law officials reported 18,356 crashes on North Dakota roads in 2012, Olson said. Of that number, cell phone use was a “contributing factor” in just 165 crashes, less than one percent of the total. Even if we add in 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,

What’s more, in North Dakota a cell phone being a contributing factor doesn’t mean it was the causing factor. “Up to three contributing factors are recorded for each vehicle involved in the crash by law enforcement,” Olson said in an email to Watchdog.

Cell phone use was named a contributing factor to crashes far less often than other factors, such as other passengers in the car or eating.

Here’s a breakdown of distracted driving crashes by contributing factor in 2012.

  • Attention distracted with an electronic communication device, such as a phone: 165 total crashes
  • Attention distracted inside vehicle — eating, kids in the backseat: 660 total crashes
  • Attention distracted other electronic device — DVD player, tablet, etc.: 36 total crashes
  • Attention distracted outside vehicle — such as another crash: 412 total crashes

“Adding these numbers together would not give a total number of distracted driving crashes, as one crash could have multiple factors,” Olson said.

You can reach Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org