WASHINGTON – Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Raffaele’s last words were over a cellphone to a friend: I’m going to crash! The car she was driving had clipped a snow bank and spun into oncoming traffic, where it was T-boned by an SUV. She died at a hospital without regaining consciousness.
Police chalked the accident up to mistakes made by a novice driver, unaware that she had been on the phone at the time. Her phone was found later in the back seat, and the possibility that distracted driving might have been a cause is missing from statistics kept by police and the federal agency that compiles crash data.
Crash deaths in cases where drivers were on the phone are seriously underreported, according to a recent analysis by the National Safety Council, an advocacy group. The underreporting makes the problem appear less significant than it is and impedes efforts to pass tougher laws, the council says.
The group reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 in which there was strong evidence that the driver had been using a cellphone, in a study paid for in part by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.
Of the 2011 crashes, only half were coded in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s accident database as involving cellphone use, the study found.
Even when drivers admitted to authorities that they were using a phone during an accident in which someone was killed, about half the cases weren’t recorded that way in the database, the council said.
The safety administration’s database shows more than 32,000 traffic deaths overall in 2011, the latest year for which complete data are available. But only 385 are listed as involving phones.
We believe the number of crashes involving cellphone use is much greater than what is being reported, said Janet Foetscher, the safety council’s president and CEO. 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.
NHTSA has acknowledged weaknesses in its distracted driving data and says it’s been working with states and police to strengthen reporting of accidents involving distracted driving.
So far, 35 states have told the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety agencies, that they have adopted model accident reporting forms that include a box for officers to check ifcellphone use was involved.
Kelsey Raffaele’s mother, Bonnie, began lobbying the Michigan state legislature for tougher restrictions on cellphone use by novice drivers a year after her daughter’s death in January 2010. She said some legislators told her the problem wasn’t that big, pointing to the federal data.
Every time I testified, I would tell them Kelsey’s crash was not reported as cellphone use, and she’s just one of thousands of other crashes that are not on the books ... as being cellphone (related), said Raffaele, of Sault Ste. Marie. I would tell them, The statistics are much higher than you think they are.’
Raffaele eventually won the changes she sought.