The Crash Reporting Conundrum

Please never drive distracted.

Andy Pilgrim
September 28, 2018

In recent years, the U.S. has seen a huge increase in something it’d rather not be a leader in: traffic deaths.

Despite my current race car driving experience, most of my life has been spent in the IT field. I worked as a computer programmer right out of school, then founded and ran my own IT consulting company for the last 29 years.

Working successfully in IT requires the ability to program complex systems and figure out complex problems, which demands a large degree of lateral thinking. The definition of lateral thinking: to solve problems using an indirect and creative approach, by viewing the problem in a new and unusual light. I am a lateral thinker by nature, it’s just the way my brain works – or doesn’t, according to some of my more amusing friends. And it applies to my driving experience as much as it does to my work in IT. Recently, lateral thinking guided me to consider how distracted driving has thrown a wrench into traffic crash reporting.

When it comes to distracted driving in the U.S., it’s a different world than even few years ago. Preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council indicate that 2018 could be our third straight year with as many as 40,000 roadways deaths.

Part of this problem is that we now have over 200 million smartphones in use across the U.S., many of which are unfortunately used behind the wheel. The U.S. also holds a unique position in the industrialized world in that 95% of all vehicles on U.S. roads are equipped with automatic transmissions, while other countries see much higher uses of manual transmissions. Why do I mention this? A manual transmission requires both hands, but if you drive an automatic transmission vehicle, you can choose to have one hand free at all times. Automatic transmission vehicles enable distracted driving with much greater ease than stick-shift vehicles.

The U.S. also faces other roadblocks, including a lack of consistent nationwide distracted driving laws and no standardized driving test. Several states don’t require any supervised driving hours before a teen can take a driving test and receive a license, while others lack strong restrictions on passengers and nighttime driving.

It’s worrying enough to make you want to ditch the car for a bus pass, but arming yourself with knowledge about the problem helps you come up with solutions. In my case, I monitor my own driving habits and behavior constantly to make sure I don’t become vulnerable to distracted drivers. Many of my previous articles deal specifically with how to be safer on our roads.

One of the less highlighted traffic issues I speak about is crash reporting and how distracted driving can muddy the waters. A few years ago, distracted driving didn’t even exist in crash reporting. Suddenly, basically overnight, the statistics told us we went from 0% to around 20% of crashes caused by distracted driving. It’s been about 20% ever since, which is confounding to me.

Here is the scenario I often use to highlight the conundrum I see in crash reporting. Let’s say someone is driving home from a bar when suddenly, a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction turns left in front of them. The two vehicles collide and the person in the turning vehicle is fatally injured. The driver coming back from the bar is not hurt. At the scene, the police officers notice the smell of alcohol on the surviving driver and do a road side sobriety test. All obvious motor functions looked normal, but we later learn he was legally intoxicated. Our driver admitted to having three beers with dinner. There was no evidence of speeding. The driver also admitted not immediately seeing the person pulling in front of them as they were looking at their phone.

Based on what we know from my scenario, is this fatal crash reported as distracted driving related, drunk driving related or both in the crash cause statistics? Too often, the cause would be recorded as drunk driving, not distracted driving, as there is no provision for both in the National crash reporting system.

The most recent crash reporting data seems to highlight my exact concerns. The latest official numbers show a decrease for distracted driving related crashes in 2016 and an increase in drunk driving and speeding caused crashes. Based on my experience, the reported drop in distracted driving makes me very uncomfortable, as it may give many distracted drivers the idea that they are not doing anything dangerous.

During our current deadly distracted driving epidemic, we owe it to every driver in the U.S. to make sure we have the most accurate crash data possible. You only need to scan around as you drive for a few seconds to know how incredibly common distracted driving is on our roads.

We all need to work hard to turn this traffic safety issue around. Please, never drive distracted, especially if you have children in your vehicle. Children learn distracted driving behaviors from parents, from the moment the child safety seat is turned around to face front. All the best to everyone.

Andy Pilgrim

Andy Pilgrim started the Traffic Safety Education Foundation in 2008. He is a professional race driver and a contributing writer/vehicle tester to Automobile Magazine.

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