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Researchers calculate the death toll from texting while driving

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September 24, 2010
  • This would be a lot less safe if the texter were behind the wheel, researchers say.
This would be a lot less safe if the texter were behind the wheel, researchers… (Jay Reeves/Associated…)

You know that texting while driving is dangerous. But just how dangerous is it?

According to researchers from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Ft. Worth, texting behind the wheel accounted for 16,141 deaths between 2002 and 2007.

The researchers arrived at that figure by analyzing nationwide traffic data from the Fatality Accident Reporting System and texting records from the Federal Communications Commission and CTIA, the wireless telecom industry group.

Crunching the numbers, they calculated that if text messaging had never been invented, there would have been 1,925 traffic fatalities per year due to distracted driving beween 2002 and 2007. But in real life, they rose from 4,611 in 2001 to 5,988 in 2007.

Some other factoids from the study:

  • The percentage of all traffic deaths caused by distracted driving rose from 11% in 1999 to 16% in 2008.
  • Distracted-driving crashes are more common in urban areas. Overall, 40% of all crashes happened in urban areas in 2008, up from 33% a decade earlier.
  • Only one-third of Americans had a cellphone in 1999. By 2008, 91% of us did.
  • The average monthly volume of text messages was 1 million in 2002. By 2008, it was 110 million.
“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 6% of US drivers are observed using a cell phone, a percentage unchanged since 2005,” the researchers wrote. “The increase in traffic fatalities since 2005 appears to be related to a shift in how handheld devices are used.” Nowadays, they beep at us or vibrate much more frequently – and when they do, they demand that attention be turned to the screen.

How to reverse the trend? “Criminal charges for texting while driving and routine examination of cell phone records in accident investigations may act as effective deterrents to drivers,” they suggested.

The study was published online Thursday by the American Journal of Public Health.

-- Karen Kaplan/Los Angeles Times

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