For the last couple of years, groups in the automotive world ranging from the American Automobile Association to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have railed away at the threat to drivers posed by smartphones and like devices. Each organization has decried the risks caused by the distractions these devices represent. Now, thanks to results for the first half of the year, it looks like they may be right. Smartphone and other handheld device use may be responsible for the biggest six-month increase in road deaths in nearly 40 years.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), deaths spiked up 8.1 percent for the first six months of the year. Specifically, the agency said highway deaths leaped to 16,225 in the January-June timeframe this year. The figure was the biggest six-month jump since 1977.
The spike follows a long period of decline in roadway fatalities. Last year, highway deaths dipped to an all-time low of 32,675 or a rate of 1.07 deaths per million miles. The rate represents a new record and caps a continuous period of decline. The agency released the new data this week because the Thanksgiving holiday is one of the busiest times on the nation’s roads. The new data suggests that something is going on. The key reason it suggests something is happening is that the jump cannot be accounted for even as gasoline prices have declined. The rate is higher than can be accounted for by the doubling of driving mileage brought on by the price decline.
Mark Rosekind, NHTSA chief, had this take, according to Reuters:
“The increase in smartphones in our hands is so significant; there’s no question that has to play some role. But we don’t have enough information yet to determine how big a role.”
Officials at the safety agency cautioned the jury is still out as the numbers could change when NHTSA issues its final report on the year. Pointing to 2012, safety officials said the numbers for the first half of the year suggested a death rate of 7.9 percent. When the final numbers came in, the figure dipped to four percent.
The safety agency, as it analyzes the data, is looking atpotential causes for the increase as it seeks the reason for the jump. Rosekind indicated that smartphones use is high on the list of reasons. He also suggested that the fall in gasoline prices has encouraged “risky drivers” – teens – to drive more. Teen driving may also be part of the picture. However, it is still too early to tell.
NHTSA hopes to fund a program next year that will sort out the human factors responsible for nearly all motor vehicle deaths.