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Activist estimates distraction fatalities at 3 times federal rate

When a crash with a distracted driver resulted in her mother's death, Jennifer Smith decided to start a nonprofit, Stopdistractions.org, aimed at supporting victims and lobbying for change.

That was nine years ago. The change she was hoping for has not arrived. If anything, distracted driving is a bigger problem than ever.

One thing she would still like to change is how distracted driver fatalities are counted. In her mother's crash, the other driver was a 20-year-old college student who admitted right away that he had been talking on his cellphone and ran a red light. He has never changed his story, so there is no reason why Smith's mother's crash shouldn't be counted as a distracted driver fatality.

In federal records maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, the wreck isn't attributed to distracted driving or cellphone use. It's simply one of 37,262 highway fatalities that year. Could there be other distracted driving deaths missed in NHTSA's database?

Smith thinks so. She cites the 14.4-percent spike in traffic fatalities over the past two years, which regulators can't explain.

Smith notes three indications that distracted driving is being undercounted in the NHTSA database, which relies on police reports and municipal data compilation.

First is the rise in the percentage of people who own a smartphone. Between 2014 and 2016, that percentage jumped from 75 to 81 percent.

Second is the increasing complexity of cellphones and smartphones. Smartphones allow a variety of activities that are far more distracting than simply talking on a cellphone. In 2015, nearly 70 percent of Americans were using their phones for photo sharing and social media. Now it's 80 percent.

Third, the spike in fatalities over the past two years has inordinately involved motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. It seems likely that bikers and pedestrians are easier for distracted drivers to miss than larger vehicles.

Another item of interest is the description of most accidents in the NHTSA database. In the 2015 data, over half of all crashes involved drivers who were traveling on a straight road with no cross traffic, tire blowouts or weather issues. Only 448 deaths in the database were specifically linked to cellphone use. That would mean that drunk driving causes 23 times more crashes than distracted driving, even though distracted driving is just as dangerous and is probably much more prevalent.

"I think the real number of fatalities tied to cell phones is at least three times the federal figure," Smith says.

How big is the distracted driving problem? We may need better data to find out for sure. What we do know is that it's very serious and very deadly indeed.

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