Cellphones have become synonymous with distracted driving in recent years, but driver distraction and concerns that new technologies contribute to driver inattention were present long before cellphones came along.
A 1914 news article in The Suffolk Sun reported that the Suffolk, Va., police department had acquired a new motorcycle to help police catch speeders and enforce reckless driving laws. Besides speeding and turning corners without sounding a horn, officers were on the lookout for drivers who weren't looking forward and drivers reading mail behind the wheel.
When windshield wipers were introduced on American cars during the early 1900s, concerns were raised over their potential to lull drivers into a daze. With the advent of car radios during the 1930s, legislators in several states unsuccessfully attempted to restrict their installation on the grounds that radios could distract drivers and lead to crashes.
There is reason to be concerned about driver behavior. Research conducted in the 1970s showed that driver error accounts for an estimated 9 of 10 crashes, with driver inattention cited in 15 percent of crashes. That is still the case more than 30 years later.
In 2012, some form of distraction — not just cellphones — was a factor in 16 percent of police-reported crashes and 10 percent of fatal ones in the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates. Among the 3,328 people who died in distraction-related crashes during 2012, cellphone use was listed as a contributing factor for 12 percent of the deaths, the agency estimates. Police reports for these crashes indicated that the driver was talking on, listening to, or manipulating a cellphone (or performing another cellphone activity) at the time of the crash, NHTSA says.
The other 88 percent of crashes in which distraction was listed as a contributing factor involved some other kind of driver distraction.
“Oftentimes, discussions regarding distracted driving center around cellphone use and texting, but distracted driving also includes other activities such as eating, talking to other passengers, or adjusting the radio or climate controls, to name but a few,” NHTSA states in its April 2014 bulletin on distracted driving.
For example, in a crash coded as distraction-related in 2005, a 31-year-old man told responding police officers that he had been trying to change the radio station in his pickup truck and wasn't looking at the road ahead when he rear-ended an SUV in heavy traffic. The impact set off a four-vehicle pileup. Information about the crash is recorded in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Study, 2005-07.
In another case from the same database, a 40-year-old female motorcyclist was killed in 2007 after the driver of a minivan stopped alongside the road abruptly attempted a U-turn in front of the motorcycle. The driver told police officers that prior to the crash he had been talking with his passenger and looking rearward for another person they were supposed to meet and didn't notice the motorcycle.
It is important to note that distraction-related crashes probably are undercounted. State and federal crash databases don't fully or consistently record information on the contribution of driver cellphone use or other distractions to crashes. Driver self-reports of phone use at the time of crashes are unreliable since people are often reluctant to admit to unlawful or culpable behavior. Without a court order, cellphone records typically are off limits in the U.S. due to privacy rules.