Has the Smartphone Actually Made Our Roads Less Safe? Some Researchers Are Skeptical

The abundance of technology in today’s society, coupled with a rise in traffic fatalities, draws an obvious conclusion: smartphone use and distracted driving are causing the spike in accidents.

Nearly all Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 have smartphones. This age group, coincidentally, also experiences some of the highest rates of auto accidents.

Though the evidence is supportive, some researchers are still skeptical as to whether smartphones have truly made our roads less safe. Their reasoning? It’s just too soon to say.

Unintentional injuries, including car accidents, is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC, and the leading cause of death among ages 15 to 34.

In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report stating that there was a 10% increase in traffic fatalities in the first part of 2016 compared to the same time last year.

While media and activists have been quick to blame smartphones, the NHTSA has considered additional factors that have changed our cultural climate over time.

“We first saw in 2015 the largest increase [in traffic fatalities], 7.2 percent, the largest percent increase in 50 years,” said NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind, but he and the rest of the department have identified additional factors that co-align with the time frame.

One potential culprit the department came up with was the national economy. After the recession, which is when social media and mobile devices were booming, unemployment was high and fewer people were commuting to work. By 2015, these jobs were coming back, leading to high traffic. Gas prices were also significantly cheaper, encouraging Americans to drive.

Other human errors, like not bucking up, speeding, drunk driving, drowsiness at the wheel, and failure to assess the driving environment are age-old causes of auto accidents and have not changed over time — or, in some cases, crashes due to these causes have actually declined. But with an influx of drivers on the road, there are more opportunities for accidents of every kind to occur.

Rosekind does not write off the significance of distracted driving, however. In fact, distractions can come from a variety of things. Passengers can be distracting, as can additional tasks like eating on the go or applying makeup in the car. It’s natural to believe that electronic devices like smartphones shoulder the entire blame for distracted driving, but that simply isn’t the case.

“The more and more technology that we get offers tremendous value to potentially help save these live,” said Rosekind, “but there’s also the potential to bring more things into the car that could distract us, as well.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is also hesitant to blame smartphones for more fatal auto accidents, instead citing that the maturity of drivers has a lot to do with the number of crashes.

Burgeoning economic recovery, like the U.S. began to undergo in 2015, not only brings experienced drivers back into the workforce, but also recent high school and college graduates. With a higher influx of young drivers commuting alongside other drivers, the chance of vehicle collision also rises.

That being said, Jessica Cicchino, vice president for research at IIHS, believes that smartphones are a significant hazard to driving. In fact, she believes that it is now the sole distraction for the majority of young drivers.

“It’s definitely a thing that people are doing. We know that people are doing it,” said Cicchino, but the data is just not there yet.

The first smartphone, the Ericsson R380, was not marketed until the year 2000, and the first iPhone was not released until 2007. Though many generations of smartphones have come and gone — the average smartphone only lasts about two years — there are still many things that we don’t know about this relatively new technology.

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