Distracted driving contributes to uptick in fatalities, regulators say

The numbers are positively sobering, and scary: in a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week, data shows that 3,522 people were killed in fatal crashes in 2021 that involved at least one distracted driver.

Overall, the report shows, 42,939 people died in vehicle traffic crashes on U.S. roadways during 2021 — the largest number of fatalities since 2005 and an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year. Specifically, from 2020 to 2021, speeding-related fatalities increased by 7.9 percent, alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities by 14 percent, and unbelted deaths rose by 8.1 percent.

The number of pedestrians killed rose 13 percent, NHTSA said, and cyclist fatalities were up two percent  for the year. The agency said that it will release preliminary 2022 traffic death data in the coming weeks.

At a news conference in Seattle, NHTSA officials emphasized the dangers of distractions on the road, pointing out the expansive use of cell phones, texting, and eating. In fact, the agency used its meeting to open its annual U Drive, U Text. U Pay awareness campaign.

“These new data tell us just how much harm distracted driving can cause and why a nationwide campaign is more important today than ever,” said Sophie Shulman, NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator. “We need to use all the tools we have to reduce distracted driving: state laws, education and outreach, and disabling of phones while driving can all work to save lives.” 

The campaign, which runs to April 10, targets drivers aged 18 to 34 who, according to NHTSA data, are more likely to die in distraction-affected crashes than any other age group.

Steve Kiefer, a retired General Motors executive whose son, Mitchel, was killed in a 2016 distracted driving crash, said at the conference that cell phones are a primary cause of distraction. But technology is available to prevent it including “do not disturb” modes, as well as apps and in-car systems that watch drivers to make sure they’re paying attention.

“All of this technology is available today, and there’s no reason we can’t use it and roll it out quickly,” said Kiefer, who started a foundation with the goal of ending distracted driving. He said 90 percent of people are aware of the dangers of distracted driving, yet 80 percent admit to ignoring them.

A detailed report on motor vehicle accident data for 2021 is available from NHTSA here.

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