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Study: Distraction-Related Bike and Pedestrian Fatalities Rising

A peek into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System may shed light on how pervasive distracted driving is in the U.S. As we discussed on this blog in March, a survey of typical American motorists by the Centers for Disease Control found that nearly 1 in 3 drivers reported talking on cellphones or texting while driving, and that the activity significantly impaired their reaction times.

Yet the rate of traffic fatalities in the U.S. overall has been down. Could it be that distracted driving is responsible for a growing share of fatal motor vehicle accidents?

It may well be. Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center recently analyzed data on fatalities caused by another driver’s distraction between 2005 and 2010, as reported to NHTSA’s FARS database, and their report was just published in the latest issue of the journal Public Health Reports. NHTSA’s data is from police reports, so the researchers could only count those accidents in which an investigator was able to identify driver distraction as the cause of the accident.

Although their analysis covered all reported distraction-related fatalities, a startling trend soon became clear. The number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed by distracted drivers jumped during the period. Distraction-related fatalities among bikers rose by 30 percent; among pedestrians they grew by nearly 50 percent.

Those numbers don’t necessarily mean that distracted driving is responsible for an increasing percentage of all fatal motor vehicle accidents, and the numbers are comparatively small for a statistical sample. But why should the number of fatalities increase so substantially for this single group of victims, even if they’re more vulnerable?

Interestingly, the group theorized that distraction may be so pervasive because talking or texting behind the wheel simply doesn’t carry the social stigma attached to other unsafe driving behaviors. It’s also harder to enforce.

Beyond changing the way the public views, what can we do to reduce distracted driving accidents?

“The evidence on policies curbing distracted driving is very mixed and some research suggests policies are just not working – that we’re not really making a dent on distracted driving,” the researcher told reporters. “If that’s the case, we need to think about marked crosswalks, bike paths – the environment that tries to create a separation between pedestrians and bicyclists with traffic.”

Source: Claims Journal, “Distracted Driving Killing More Pedestrians, Bicyclists,” Nov. 25, 2013

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