GABE NELSON

U.S. distracted driving fatalities top 3,300 -- what's the solution?

Automotive News | April 6, 2013 - 10:16 am EST

Imagine if you were to wake up tomorrow, flip on the morning news, and discover that during the previous night, 3,092 people veered over a cliff to their deaths.

Shocking, right?

Now, imagine if the following year, you were to wake up in the morning, flip on the morning news, and discover that this year, another 3,331 people died in a single night by plummeting off of the exact same cliff.

You would be even more shocked. But why? Because an extra 300 people died? Or because the problem was not solved after the first time?

This metaphor may be a bit morbid, but it is not that different from the feeling you should have felt on Friday, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its annual report on distracted driving.

The agency found that 3,331 people died in distracted driving accidents in 2011, compared to 3,092 in 2010. These deaths make up about 10 percent of all driving fatalities.

However, the number of people injured in cell-phone related accidents fell from 24,000 to 21,000. And distracted driving habits have held steady over the past few years, with roughly the same number of people admitting to making calls or texting while driving.

NHTSA cautioned against reading too much into these numbers, but so far they give no evidence that we are headed toward what many people have feared: an epidemic of cell-phone related driving deaths. There is no epidemic in sight, at least not yet.

But as with the cliff metaphor, there is little consolation in that.

Whether the number of deaths and injuries nudged up or down, there are still a whole lot of people dying. And according to NHTSA, at any given daytime moment, about 660,000 Americans drivers are using cell phones or fiddling with an electronic device while driving.

Just because there is no sudden tragedy to stun the United States into action, that does not make this any more acceptable.

It is clear there is no easy solution. Ban car companies from making their vehicles too distracting, and people will use their smartphones instead. Ban people from talking on their phones, and they will use the phones surreptitiously in their laps.

Everyone in the auto industry has a part to play.

Automakers and suppliers are spending heavily to make navigation and infotainment software so useful, and so easy to use, that people put away their smartphones and stop fiddling with dials.

Dealers are increasingly helping their customers link phones to their cars to help drivers take advantage of hands-free, voice-activated features that keep their eyes on the road.

Sure, everyone could do more. And if the harm caused by distracted driving were as painfully clear as the latest tragedy on the morning news, maybe they would.

Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.

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