A new study adding fuel to the debate over the safety of driving while using cellphones is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.
First, it clearly shows that the actual number of fatal crashes involving drivers using their cellphones is far greater than law enforcement or the government is reporting.
Secondly, publication of the nonprofit National Safety Council study comes just days after a watered-down ban on texting while driving barely passed the Florida Legislature.
The measure treats texting while driving as a minor offense, punishable by a $30 fine. It allows for texting while stopped in traffic, and limits law enforcementís ability to prove its case by looking through an offenderís cell phone. Itís also considered a secondary offense, meaning offenders can only be cited after being pulled over for other offenses, like speeding or reckless driving.
Still, itís better than nothing, and it removes Florida from the list of five states without any sort of legislation to curb this dangerous behavior. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill into law, as he should.
Lawmakers ó including Rep. Jose Oliva, a Republican from Miami Lakes whose last-minute legislative maneuvering almost killed the bill ó should then read the Safety Council report.
It adds to the body of evidence that distracted driving is a clear and present danger now that mobile devices are ubiquitous. But a lack of firm statistics about the frequency of cellphone-related crashes makes it difficult for proponents of tougher laws to make their case.
According to the study, which was funded in part by the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., cellphone-related crashes are under-reported on a grand scale. The Safety Council reviewed 180 fatal crashes over three years where drivers admitted to cellphone use and found only half were recorded into a national database as having been related to cellphone use.
Statistics from each state reflect the misrepresentation. Tennessee reported 93 fatal crashes related to cellphone use in 2011, while the much larger state of New York reported one. Florida reported 21 that year.
Clearly, the numbers are not being accurately reported. Researchers said drivers are often reluctant, or unable, to offer information about cellphone use after a crash, and law enforcement often finds it difficult to obtain cell records when investigating crashes.
Making certain that cellphone use is reported as a contributing factor begins with local law enforcement. The study found local crash reports often fail to include the evidence that cellphone use contributed to the accident. In addition, reporting methods vary by local jurisdiction and state.
When those local statistics are recorded in the national database, the number of cellphone-related crashes ends up being grossly under-reported. And without a true reflection of the numbers, there is less urgency to pass meaningful legislation.
The Safety Council recommends that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration study whether the under-reporting of cellphone crashes can be fixed. In the meantime, it suggests lawmakers assume that the number of cellphone-related crashes is much greater than the statistics reflect.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 10 states ban talking on hand-held cellphones while driving. Novice drivers are banned from using cellphones while driving in 36 states. Cellphone use by school bus drivers while driving is banned in 19 states. Texting is banned for all drivers in 39 states.
Now that Florida has taken the first tiny step forward, state lawmakers need to return to Tallahassee next year and give this reckless behavior the full attention it deserves.