Thousands of Americans still die in car crashes every year. Blame texting

The interstate near Chicago. Image: Getty.

Today, driving is arguably safer than ever been before. Modern vehicles now boast a number of safety features, including blind spot monitoring, driver alertness detection systems and emergency braking. Additionally, highway engineering has improved over the last few decades. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention called motor vehicle safety one of the top 10 U.S. public health achievements of the 20th century.

Despite this, there were 32,166 crashes that led to at least one death in the U.S. in 2015. Over the course of one year, crash injuries cost an estimated $18bn spent in lifetime medical expenses and $33bn of lifetime work. That’s six times more in medical costs than the U.S. spends annually treating gunshot wounds.

These numbers are alarming. It’s not a stretch to say that motor vehicle crashes should be viewed as a public health crisis. I have been researching roadway safety for the last five years and have provided expert testimony to state legislative bodies on my findings. The data show that robust distracted driving policies can make a difference – if states pursue them.

Why people crash

Why are there so many crashes when cars and roadways are much improved? Part of the answer lies in a ballooning technological phenomenon: distracted driving.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are three primary types of driver distraction: taking one’s hands off the wheel, taking one’s eyes off the road and taking one’s mind off driving.


When a driver interacts with a cellphone – texting, video streaming, emailing – it takes their eyes off the road for several seconds at a time. Research shows that cellphone use while driving can result in longer reaction times, impaired following distance and crashes.

That can be injurious, if not deadly. Studies on distracted driving and cellphone use almost always find negative roadway outcomes, such as near-misses, crashes and delayed reaction times.

In 2015, 10 per cent of all roadway fatalities occurring in the U.S. involved distraction, leading to close to 3,500 deaths and an estimated 391,000 people injured. While distracted driving is prevalent among all ages, drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 were involved in more fatal crashes than those in other age groups.

Other major causes for fatal crashes include unfavorable weather conditions, such as fog or snow; drivers’ physical impairments, such as drowsiness or heart attacks; aggressive driver behavior; or vehicle failures.

Paradoxically, some causes of crashes may seem positive. As the economy improves and gasoline prices drop, more people drive and crash risk increases. In recent years, the U.S. has climbed out of a recession, and the unemployment rate has been on the decline.

Distracted driving laws

To tackle the public health threat of coronary heart disease and stroke, states implemented tobacco control laws that prohibit smoking in public places; implemented excise taxes; and allowed Medicaid to cover treatment of tobacco addiction.

States have also used legislation to address motor vehicle safety. Common laws include blood alcohol concentration limits; graduated driver licensing programs; and laws mandating the use of seat belts, child safety seats and motorcycle helmets.

States have also zeroed in on texting. Today, all states but Montana have passed laws that specifically prohibit texting while driving. The laws generally define texting as the manual composition, reading or sending electronic communications via a portable electronic device.

However, all state laws prohibiting texting while driving are not created equal. For example, in some states, an officer cannot stop a driver just for texting – there must be another reason. Moreover, some states, like Indiana, ban texting while driving for young drivers only.

In states where officers can stop drivers just for texting, studies show that roadway deaths have gone down by about 3 per cent, while hospitalisations decreased about 7 per cent.

States where an officer must have another reason did not see significant reductions. In fact, among some age groups, these bans were linked to increases in crash-related fatalities and hospitalisations. This is perhaps because people in these states are holding their devices just a little lower than they otherwise would, so as not to be detected.

The ConversationAs lawmakers and other stakeholders consider what can be done to further address distracted driving as a public health crisis, enforcement of existing laws is an obvious first step. Given that texting bans are not aggressively enforced widely, it stands to reason that more serious attempts of enforcement may lead to safer roads.

Alva O. Ferdinand, Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management, Texas A&M University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.