The #1 cause of traffic fatalities isn’t texting. It’s driving.

By Philip Cohen, PhD

I don’t yet have a copy of Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Based on his Pulitzer-prize winning reporting for the New York Times, however, I’m afraid it’s unlikely to do justice to the complexity of the relationship between mobile phones and motor vehicle accidents. Worse, I fear it distracts attention from the most important cause of traffic fatalities: driving.

A bad sign

The other day Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teens than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.

In fact, only 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, I get 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book:

In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or someone they got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsdaynumber of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per day statistic, you find sites like, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cellphone effects).

After I contacted him to complain about that 11-teens-per-day statistic, Richtel pointed out that the page I linked to is run by his publisher, not him, and that he had asked them to “deal with that stat.” I now see that the page includes a footnote that says, “Statistic taken from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Fatality Facts.” I don’t think that’s true, however, since the “Fatality Facts” page for teenagers still shows 2,228 teens (passengers and drivers) killed in 2012. Richtel added in his email to me:

As I’ve written in previous writings, the cell phone industry also takes your position that fatality rates have fallen. It’s a fair question. Many safety advocates point to air bags, anti-lock brakes and wider roads — billions spent on safety — driving down accident rates (although accidents per miles driven is more complex). These advocates say that accidents would’ve fallen far faster without mobile phones and texting. And they point out that rates have fallen far faster in other countries (deaths per 100,000 drivers) that have tougher laws. In fact, the U.S. rates, they say, have fallen less far than most other countries. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this. I think it’s a worthy issue for conversation.

I appreciate his response. Now I’ll read the book before complaining about him any more.

The shocking truth

I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.

That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on makeup; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)

Beyond the general complaint about misleading people and abusing our ignorance, however, the texting scare distracts us (I know, it’s ironic) from the giant problem staring us in the face: our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).

To illustrate this, I went through all the trouble of getting data on mobile phone subscriptions by state, to compare with state traffic fatality rates, only to find this: nothing:

What does predict deaths? Driving. This isn’t a joke. Sometimes the obvious answer is obvious because it’s the answer:

If you’re interested, I also put both of these variables in a regression, along with age and sex composition of the states, and the percentage of employed people who drive to work. Only the miles and drive-to-work rates were correlated with vehicle deaths. Mobile phone subscriptions had no effect at all.

Also, pickups?

Failing to find a demographic predictor that accounts for any of the variation after that explained by miles driven, I tried one more thing. I calculated each state’s deviation from the line predicted by miles driven (for example Alaska, where they only drive 6.3 thousand miles per person, is predicted to have 4.5 deaths per 100,000 but they actually have 8.1, putting that state 3.6 points above the line). Taking those numbers and pouring them into the Google correlate tool, I asked what people in those states with higher-than-expected death rates are searching for. And the leading answer is large, American pickup trucks. Among the 100 searches most correlated with this variable, 10 were about Chevy, Dodge, or Ford pickup trucks, like “2008 chevy colorado” (r = .68), shown here:

I could think of several reasons why places where people are into pickup trucks have more than their predicted share of fatal accidents.

So, to sum up: texting while driving is dangerous and getting more common as driving is getting safer, but driving still kills thousands of Americans every year, making it the umbrella social problem under which texting may be one contributing factor.

I used this analogy before, and the parallel isn’t perfect, but the texting panic reminds me of the 1970s Crying Indian ad I used to see when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. The ad famously pivoted from industrial pollution to littering in the climactic final seconds.

Conclusion: Keep your eye on the ball.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

ROADS KILL: Mali: I Hadn't Been Expecting Sheep


BAMAKO — I’ve gotten used to watching the city’s scooters carry strange things as they weave between the cars and buses that clog the dusty, sun-baked streets.

I’ve seen a father driving with his daughter perched on the handlebars of his scooter while his wife clutched his waist, a sleeping baby strapped to her back. I’ve seen a teenage girl in a tank top drain a can of beer while she drove and then toss the empty container at a police officer. What I hadn’t seen, until recently, was a scooter with an upside-down sheep, legs bound by twine, stuffed awkwardly into a large box on the moped’s back rack. I did a double-take when the sheep baa-ed as it went by. My driver didn’t seem to notice.

Bamako is a city of scooters, for better and often for worse. The motorbikes are cheap, fast and staggeringly fuel-efficient.

The primary appeal of a scooter, though, is its small size. Bamako’s traffic is horrendous, and drivers can easily spend an hour or longer sitting uncomfortably in their cars as they slowly inch their way from one side of the city to the other. Scooters are different. Drivers — depending on their skill, bravery or stupidity — can try to maneuver the little bikes through the impossibly narrow gaps separating one honking car from another. When they succeed, Bamako’s scooter drivers slash their travel time significantly. When they fail, bad things happen.

“I was hit by a bus,” a businessman named Traore Sebou Tidiane said matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t going very fast, thankfully, so all I got were some cuts and a broken arm. I’ve seen worse.”

Many Malians have.

It easy to see why Mali’s roads are so dangerous, especially for scooter drivers. Malian drivers are incredibly patient and courteous — cars and buses routinely stop to allow other vehicles to cut in front of them — but accidents are inevitable when so many cars are jammed onto the same narrow roads, particularly ones that don’t have working traffic lights or street lights. Scooter drivers make things even riskier for themselves by rarely wearing helmets.

“I know I should wear one, but it’s just too hot,”Awa Traore said as she loaded an impressively large stack of groceries onto the back of her scooter.

— Yochi Dreazen

This is Part I of four stories detailing traffic fatalities around the world. View all four stories published by The Washington Post 
and check out our interactive map

It has been one year since New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged a new way of thinking about traffic in the city. On Jan. 15, 2014, he stood not far from the Queens crosswalk where an 8-year-old boy had been killed by an unlicensed truck driver a month earlier and spoke of the “epidemic of traffic fatalities.”

 “The time to start change is now,” he declared.

Read more here.

Firearms fatalities in the US are projected to exceed traffic fatalities by the year 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Clearly, safety measures like air bags and mandatory seat belt laws have reduced traffic fatalities in recent decades – and this was all done without banning cars or entirely eliminating the risks of driving (which could never be accomplished).  This is called “harm reduction” in public health parlance, and it’s how we need to start framing the gun violence issue if we are ever going to make our society safer.

Medical Marijuana Laws Shown to Reduce Traffic Fatalities

Medical Marijuana Laws Shown to Reduce Traffic Fatalities

Well, that settles that By Clay DillowPosted 11.30.2011 at 2:59 pm

Any attempt to segue into this post with a clever lead is likely to fall flat, so in the interest of skipping the cliches: a new study out of University of Colorado Denver and Montana State University shows that legalizing medical marijuana sales in various states over the past two decades has led to a nearly 10 percent drop in traffic fatalities. What the study really shows–by way of causal chain–is a five percent drop in beer sales, and that has in turn led to fewer fatalities on the road. Put that in your pipe and smoke it (couldn’t resist just one).

This is the kind of study that’s going to be attacked from all sides, by those with agendas and those who will simply point out that establishing that causal link between legalized pot and the decrease in alcohol sales (and in turn the reduced traffic deaths) is difficult with all the variables out there. But it is an interesting study for no other reason than it actually attempts to measure the effects of legalizing pot by linking it to some kind of hard data rather than some hard-to-quantify metric.

That, of course, is traffic data, of which we have plenty. Traffic data is bountiful and generally pretty good because incidents on the road–particularly those that involve injury or fatality–very rarely go unnoticed by authorities, who are required to dutifully record them in the public record. So Daniel Rees of UC Denver and D. Mark Anderson of MSU started looking at the traffic data both nationwide and more particularly in the 13 states that legalized marijuana for medical use between 1990 and 2009.

They found several connections and trends that seemingly stem from the legalization laws, but most notably they found evidence that alcohol consumption by 20- to 29-year-olds decreased, and that translated into fewer deaths on the road. Previous simulator studies have shown that drinkers tend to drive more aggressively and take more risks, while marijuana users tilt toward risk-averse behaviors. Notably, they also found that in the states that legalized marijuana there was no evidence of an uptick in use among minors, which is a major concern for the medical marijuana opposition.

To be fair, establishing these kinds of links is still difficult as variable abound and the data is sometimes difficult to trust. Common sense (experience?) tells us that kids smoking pot generally don’t go around telling adults about it, including those conducting academic research. So establishing whether or not more or fewer kids are getting high is more or less an exercise in guesswork. And Rees and Anderson point out that while alcohol is often consumed in public places marijuana is consumed privately, often in the home. So making marijuana use a publicly acceptable activity for all people–not just those with a medical necessity–might diminish the reduction in traffic fatalities as more stoney drivers get behind the wheel.

But things being what they are, medical marijuana laws appear to be trending toward safer roadways, and that’s all this study purports to demonstrate. Place whatever value on that you will. PopSci would like to point out that this post does not constitute an opinion either for or against the legalization of medical marijuana, and Rees’s and Anderson’s findings are just, like, their opinions, man.
Car crash deaths decline during holiday weekend

Fatal accidents on Ohio’s roadways over the Labor Day holiday hit a five-year low this weekend, on what the Ohio State Highway Patrol considers to be one of the most dangerous weekends on the road.

On Sunday, Ohio University senior Gloria Dawes, 22, from Adena, Ohio, was killed after her car went through the median and was struck by another car. Dawes was one of 10 motorists killed in Labor Day weekend car accidents in Ohio this year.

The crash left OU graduate Ryan Payne, who was a passenger in the car, with serious injuries.

Read more from The Post.

RELATED: Counseling Available For Those Who Knew Gloria Dawes (WOUB News).

ROADS KILL: Pinball Traffic in Bogotá


BOGOTÁ — Whipping through the crunch of midday traffic in the tiny taxi felt a bit like riding a fast-moving ball in a pinball machine. We zoomed right. Ping. We zoomed left, without the young driver giving any hint our sudden change of direction to the drivers alongside. Ping.

I tried to keep my eyes open.

Heading back downtown during the afternoon rush hour on a major roadway, a veteran driver watched the cars all around him and moaned about his daily challenge. Too many cars, he said. Too many drivers — and especially the ones driving taxis, who take too many risks, he said.

As he talked on, I noticed an ambulance parked in front of a crash on the other side of the roadway.

With improved economic times, Bogotá, Colombia’s largest city, is awash in cars, traffic woes and public concerns. In turn, local officials have sought to show their eagerness to deal with problem drivers and to assure a worried public.

After a recent fatal crash that involved a driver allegedly under the influence of alcohol, Bogotá officials publicized the overnight arrests of large numbers of drunken drivers.

So, too, the recent killing of a DEA agent in Bogotá, the apparent victim of a criminal ring that used taxis to target clients in upper-income areas, brought on discussions about the need for better licensing of taxi drivers.

But in many ways, the situation today in Colombia has improved.

Government figures show that traffic-related deaths and accidents have significantly declined since the mid-1990s. But the marked progress appears to have leveled off in recent years. There were 7,874 traffic-related deaths in 1995, and the number fell to 5,502 in 2010. But there were 5,693 traffic-related fatalities in 2012, a 3 percent increase over 2011, according to news reports.

Reflecting the global push for driving safety, Colombian officials several years ago outlined an ambitious effort to tackle the leading causes of the nation’s traffic-related deaths and injuries by 2016.

Their report singled out passengers and motorcyclists as accounting for 70 percent of the traffic-related fatalities annually and looked at measures to cope with the problem.

— Stephen Franklin

This is Part III of four stories detailing traffic fatalities around the world. View all four stories published by The Washington Post and check out our interactive map
Autoblog Minute: Economy, distracted drivers contribute to traffic fatalities

Filed under: Videos, Driving, Safety, Autoblog MinuteSafer cars don’t necessarily make for safer roads as car related fatalities are on the rise in 2015.

Continue reading Autoblog Minute: Economy, distracted drivers contribute to traffic fatalities

Autoblog Minute: Economy, distracted drivers contribute to traffic fatalities originally appeared on Autoblog on Tue, 25 Aug 2015 19:30:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Copenhagen Is The Ultimate Bicycle City

Copenhagen Is The Ultimate Bicycle City

An incredible inform, and article from showing the extent and duration of one city’s passion with bikes. Copenhagen is the Ultimate Bicycle City

Originally Published on

Welcome to Copenhagen, although if you’re a fan of two-wheeled transportation, you’ll probably come to know it as bicycle heaven.

Copenhagen is the city with more bikes than people, at a rate of 5 bikes to…

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Good economic conditions send traffic fatalities soaring

Filed under: SafetyThe economy is good. The gas prices are low. This is an ideal summer for road-trippers, commuters and motorists of every kind. But the good times come at a high cost.

Continue reading Good economic conditions send traffic fatalities soaring

Good economic conditions send traffic fatalities soaring originally appeared on Autoblog on Tue, 18 Aug 2015 12:45:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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ROADS KILL: Nigeria: Ignoring the Rules of the Road in Abuja


ABUJA — The green-and-white taxi sped through the intersection, ignoring the traffic policewoman officer and narrowly missing a red Honda Civic coming from the adjacent road.

“Wèr è!” — the word means “lunatic” in the Yoruba language — the policewoman screams at the offending driver as he steps on the gas and zooms away. She glares at the disappearing vehicle, powerless to do anything else — no ticket, no fine, nothing for Nigeria’s reckless drivers who routinely act as though the law does not apply to them.

It’s only 11:30 a.m. in Abuja, Nigeria’s busy capital, and this policewoman is about to witness several more infractions.

In Nigeria, speed limits appear to be viewed as mere suggestions, lanes are flexible, driving against traffic is routine and if you are caught, a little money can make all your troubles go away.

Nigeria has the worst driving record in Africa: nearly 34 deaths for every 100,000 residents, according to a 2013 World Health Organization report. The Federal Road Safety Commission, the agency responsible for road safety administration in the country, blames most of these accidents on speeding. The country’s notoriously poorly maintained roads, riddled with potholes, help ensure that Nigeria is among the most dangerous places in the world to drive.

“It is not just about drivers here not regarding the rules,” says Afolabi Bakare, a taxi driver. “The truth is most of them do not even know the rules. How many people go to driving school before they get their driving licenses? To tell the truth, even me — I did not know how to drive very well when I got my driver’s license.”

“All you need to do is go to the office and ‘settle’ someone with about [31 dollars], and they do the license for you,” he said. “You do not even have to be there for data capture. It’s the Nigerian thing.”

The federal government has endorsed various policies to deal with the menace of unqualified drivers and to rein in fake driver’s licenses, but authorities have consistently fallen short on enforcement. People seem to always find a way around the system.

— Ameto Akpe

This is Part II of four stories detailing traffic fatalities around the world. View all four stories published by The Washington Post and check out our interactive map
Rest easy, parents: Teen driving deaths have tumbled

Filed under: SafetyTeen drivers are far less likely to be involved in fatal car accidents today than at any other point over the past two decades.

Continue reading Rest easy, parents: Teen driving deaths have tumbled

Rest easy, parents: Teen driving deaths have tumbled originally appeared on Autoblog on Wed, 27 May 2015 00:01:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Unilateral trade Lights for Cyclists - The Way Forward?

Passing cyclists for the road jar come a impugn for Nottingham driving instructors. Learners can be alarmed by the unpredictability and slow pace referring to cyclists as an example well as the unreliability in relation with injuring the establishment by passing too close to them. New plans for the exploratory of traffic lights in aid of cyclists could possibly fathom the roads safer and procedures for their use proposal yean to be taught during driving lessons in Nottingham.
The new Dutch style bargain spotlight for cyclists will be set at eye-level and twisty to give bikes a leading start from traffic light controlled junctions allowing them as far as get forward of not that sort traffic, mainly cars. Not explicitly a good utensil as car drivers will immediately start looking to overtake cycles at the precedent opportunity. Lorries and radio fare vehicles will present a more serious problem owing to their size and lack of manoeuvrability. The unstoppable slowing down of traffic flow could lead to worse overcharge and even more stress on the roads, particularly at confluence hour. This would conceive a pressure situation at the front with regard to the queue where lack with regard to township road quadrat may lead on dangerously searching overtaking. Alter may possibly prevail safer for cyclists not to take incumbency at the front and slowness to the point in the custom queue. Transport for London is in talks by virtue of the managing regarding the changes in law necessary for extensive use in connection with the lighting throughout the Consilient Kingdom, but will go ahead and conduct trials using the new technology. Patch choice tell if the roads issue forth safer.
Commercial affairs lighting for cyclists are already used in France, Spain, Denmark, Germany and the United States, in addition to the green phonic showing a logo respecting a bicycle. In Holland the color filter are eroded on separate designated cycle lanes and at major junctions. Shrievalty for transport figures outcrop that the trial re deaths has risen steeply for cyclists whilst on all counts traffic fatalities are on the decrease.
At thousand major junctions which already have multiple sets of traffic lights and filter arrows the confusion caused unto newcomer drivers by yet other set of lights could be considerable, primarily a green frothy which comes on prior to the main traffic lights. Inattentive motorists may think that the light is meant for she all the more at night or during antonymous weather conditions. This would probably lead to many false starts and stalling as the instructor intervenes to stop the car. Many cyclists early completely not get involved hard stuff traffic lights, even the lights at controlled pedestrian crossings so could not be at cost expected to conform to the new signals.
Supposition a additional effective way befit would be traffic education for cyclists and any form of testing. At the moment there is no such requirement and anyone can take a catch a train on the road without recurrent a rudimentary knowledge of traffic signs and signals. Having untrained cyclists moving to the front of a busy traffic descent could present a very real safety issue.