Cell-phone use linked to wrecks

Group seeking ban says cell phone, texting cause 28 percent of wrecks

Staff WriterJanuary 13, 2010 

  • 277 million

    Wireless phone subscribers in the United States in 2009, up from 97 million in 2000.

    2.5 million

    Text messages sent each minute in 2009, up from 319 in 2000.

    1.4 million

    Yearly crashes caused by drivers on cell phones.

    200,000

    Yearly crashes caused by texting drivers.

    20

    States, including North Carolina, that ban sending and reading e-mail and text messages while driving.

    11

    Percent of drivers using cell phones at any moment.

    Source: National Safety Council

Drivers distracted by cell-phone talking and texting cause 28 percent of traffic accidents, the National Safety Council said in a study released Tuesday.

Safety advocates cited the new estimates as they introduced a national organization, patterned after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to fight phone use while driving. The nonprofit group FocusDriven will be led by people whose parents, children or other relatives were killed by drivers using cell phones.

"We must act in order to save lives," Jennifer Smith of Grapevine, Texas, the group's president, told reporters in a telephone news conference in Washington. Smith's mother died in 2008 when a driver talking on his phone ran a red light and hit her car broadside.

Law enforcement and safety experts have struggled to measure the risks posed and crashes caused by drivers talking on their phones or using them to send and receive e-mail and text messages. Cell-phone use is not routinely considered, in the way alcohol use is, when police investigate accidents.

North Carolina learned of one tragic case recently when the Highway Patrol investigated a fatal car-train crash at an Orange County rail crossing.

Erin-Lindsay Calkins was talking on her phone Dec. 22 when she crashed through a rail crossing gate and stopped her car in the path of an Amtrak train that killed her and her 5-year-old son.

Ray LaHood, U.S. Transportation secretary, said he would help members of FocusDriven and other safety advocates push for a ban on cell-phone use while driving.

"We're on a rampage about this," LaHood told reporters.

Janet Froescher, president of the National Safety Council, released new estimates that blame driver phone conversations for 1.4 million crashes in the U.S. each year, and texting for an additional 200,000, a combined 28 percent of accidents.

"It is absolutely preventable, and for us not to stop it is absolutely unforgiveable," Froescher said at the news conference.

A few states ban the use of hand-held phones behind the wheel but allow drivers to use Bluetooth and other hands-free devices. But Smith said there are no studies indicating that hands-free phones are any less dangerous.

"It's not where your hands are, it's where your head is and what's going on in your brain" during a phone conversation, Smith said.

Will strategy work?

Rob Foss, a distracted-driving expert at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill, hoped the FocusDriven effort would boost public understanding. But the tactics used against small numbers of drunken drivers might not work against huge numbers of distracted drivers, he said.

"One thing MADD was able to do quite effectively is cast drinking drivers as the evil other person," Foss said. "And that's a little harder to do when people doing this other dangerous thing are talking about themselves and their friends and family."

As MADD has done with alcohol-related crashes, FocusDriven will provide support for survivors of people killed by telephone-distracted drivers. Crash survivors will "put a human face on the disastrous impact of this behavior," Smith said.

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527.

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