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Safety group: distracted-driving car accidents are underreported

The National Safety Council, a nationwide nonprofit research and advocacy organization focused on accident safety, says that the number of car accidents caused by distracted driving is considerably underrepresented in an important federal database. The group looked into the underlying police reports of 180 2011 fatal accidents listed in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System. To their surprise, they found that as many as half were not marked as being caused by driver distraction even when there was strong evidence that was the case.

"We believe the number of crashes involving cellphone use is much greater than what is being reported," the group's CEO said in a statement. "Many factors, from drivers not admitting cellphone use to a lack of consistency in crash reports being used to collect data at the scene, make it very challenging to determine an accurate number."

This comes at the same time as a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that many teen drivers aren't taking warnings against distracted driving seriously. The CDC found -- also analyzing 2011 data -- that 46 percent of drivers aged 17 were willing to admit they texted while driving. When they turned 18, the number grew to 52 percent -- over half. Moreover, all indications point to driver distraction being the number-one cause of car accident deaths among U.S. teens.

In the National Safety Council's review, the issue seemed to be that police reports are inconsistent in their determination of whether a car accident was caused by distracted driving or not. For example, when none of those involved in the accident mention a cellphone, police may not realize driver distraction was involved. In other cases, however, cellphones were explicitly mentioned in the police report but the corresponding entry in NHTSA's database wasn't marked as involving distraction.

The National Safety Council is urging NHTSA, which has acknowledged the problem, to make changes. NHTSA says that accident reports need to be more consistent across state and municipal lines and says that it is working with the Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization of state highway safety agencies, to implement a standardized form. So far, 35 states have adopted it.

Hopefully, this more consistent reporting will give us all some useful information on how to prevent distracted-driving car accidents when we're behind the wheel.

Source: CBS News, "Study: Distracted driving deaths underreported," Associated Press, May 7, 2013

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