Fatalities of Distraction

I was born and raised on a farm in Olympia, Washington. I was reared by parents who valued individualism, self-sufficiency and hard work. When my farmer dad came to grips with the fact that I was working for a government agency that meddles with people's lives inside their cars, he was less than pleased.

In my twenty years working as a program manager for Washington's Highway Safety Office, I've been mentored by some super-cool experts in the traffic safety field who've built upon my farm girl foundation by encouraging critical thinking and dependence on data as I've helped to craft programs that are supposed to save lives and reduce injuries.

There is no doubt distracted driving involving cell phones and other gadgets has captured our attention in a big way. And by "our" I mean everyone from former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to the average driver and pedestrian on the street. We notice it. It also seems safe to say most of us agree fidgeting with devices while we're behind the wheel is a pretty stupid thing to do. But many of us are still doing it; the knowledge of the danger doesn't seem to be overriding the desire to stay connected and entertained.

As I've worked on the distracted driving issue and puzzled over what might change people's behavior around it (especially as it relates to cell phones) I've done what my traffic safety mentors taught me to do; I've steeped myself in all available data about the issue. Unfortunately, a stark reality in the traffic safety world is that reliable, accurate data around cell phone use during crashes doesn't exist. It's complicated.

Drivers who've crashed don't often admit to being on their cell phone at the time. Sometimes law enforcement doesn't ask drivers at crash scenes. Laws sometime prevent checking of cell phone records, but even if they didn't you wouldn't necessarily be able to confirm a driver doing something like looking for a certain song, or perusing Facebook.

But there are a couple pieces of data that are very reliable and, in my humble opinion, quite impressive. 91 percent of all adults in the U.S. own a cell phone. 56 percent of those are smart phones (a jump up from 35 percent two years ago). And we KNOW those phones are being used in the car. We all see it every day.

When I try to wrap my brain around this fact, I'm immediately struck by the lack of a correlation between these numbers and the corresponding decreasing numbers of traffic fatalities in our country. In the last sixteen years, as cell phone use has been jetting upward, traffic fatalities have been spiraling downward. In only two of those sixteen years have we seen an increase in fatalities and those increases were both less than one percent.

Here in Washington we know there is still work to be done in shoring up our data collection in relation to distracted driving. Is law enforcement checking for cell phone involvement (as the law allows) in every case they can? Maybe not, but we think we're getting there. But even with that possible lack of data collection, shouldn't we be seeing a spike somewhere in the crash data? I'm especially perplexed by this when I expose myself to the research around distracted driving. A naturalistic driving study documented distraction as a factor in 78 percent of crashes and 65% of "near misses. " Still, two more studies confirm drivers are four times more likely to crash while texting.

Countless studies insist our brains do not allow us to multi-task nearly as well as most of think we do. Considering these facts as they pertain to young, inexperienced drivers makes me shudder. Just yesterday I spent a better part of the morning watching videos from the National Safety Council that tell the stories of victims of cell phone distraction. It seems so many of these stories start with a teen distracted by a cell phone.

In 1993, the year I started work here in the Highway Safety Office, 661 people lost their lives on Washington State roads. I, like many, many people, acquired my first cell phone a few years later; maybe 1999? In 2012, there were 437 deaths on Washington's roadways; the lowest number since 1954. Three of those 437 fatality reports cited cell phone use as a factor in the crash; 201 reports cited drug and/or alcohol impairment as a factor. With numbers like that, it's no wonder why getting impaired drivers off our roadways has been, and remains, our number one traffic safety priority in Washington.

Is it safe to assume the downward decline of roadway deaths would have been steeper still had cell phones never entered the scene? Or if we'd spent a significant amount of our traffic safety funding on cell phone and driving prevention? That's what this farm girl wants to know.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.