U.S. researchers reported on Thursday that texting or talking on cell phones while driving killed 16,000 people from 2001 to 2007.
The research is one of the first scientific attempts to quantify how many people have died in accidents caused by cell phone distractions.
“Our results suggested that recent and rapid increases in texting volumes have resulted in thousands of additional road fatalities in the United States,” Fernando Wilson and Jim Stimpson of the University of North Texas Health Science Center wrote in the American Journal of Public Health.
The team used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on deaths attributable to distracted driving.
“Since roughly 2001-2002, texting volumes have increased by several hundred percent,” Wilson told Reuters in a telephone interview. In 2002, 1 million texts were sent every month; this rose to 110 million in 2008.i
“Since 2001 our model predicts that about 16,000 people have died since then that we attribute to the increase in texting volume in the United States.”
Wilson said texting and using smartphones that provide email access and other applications takes the problem to a whole new level.
The Transportation Department said in 2009 that U.S. traffic deaths hit their lowest level since the mid-1950s at 33,963.
However, for every 1 million cell phone subscribers, Wilson and Stimpson estimate a 19-percent rise in deaths because of distracted driving.
“Distracted deaths as a share of all road fatalities increased from 10.9 percent to 15.8 percent from 1999 to 2008, and much of the increase occurred after 2005,” the researchers wrote.
“In 2008, approximately 1 in 6 fatal vehicle collisions resulted from a driver being distracted while driving,” the report said. It found 5,870 people died in accidents attributed to distracted driving.
Wilson and Stimpson found that cellphone ownership and the number of text messages sent rose over the same amount of time.
Wilson told Reuters that 30 states have already banned texting while driving, and some cities and states require hands-free devices for drivers using mobile phones.
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said this week that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation would work together to fight distractions.
However, Wilson told Reuters that he does not see a way to better enforce this.
“I guess a perfect solution would be installing cell phone jammers in every car but that is not going to happen,” Wilson told Reuters.
“Unlike drunk driving, where you have effective enforcement mechanisms you don’t have that with texting,” he said. “The cop just has to get lucky and see you texting while driving.”
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