Distracted driving—including the use of smart phones—accounted for a "troubling" increase in traffic deaths in the first six months of 2015, federal officials said this week.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday that traffic fatalities increased 8.1 percent between January and June. And while driving accidents and fatalities can be expected to spike after a recession as people have more money to spend on gas and leisure trips, the economy doesn't account for all of the increase, they said.
There was a 3.1 percent increase in driving during the January to June period, officials said. So the total traffic fatalities, 8.1 percent, is more than double what could be expected based on an improving economy and low gas prices.
"As you know, the increase in smartphones in our hands is so significant there's no question that has to play some role," Mark Rosekind, head of the NHTSA, said during a press conference to announce the numbers. He also cautioned that distracted driving is a particularly hard factor to measure in data analysis.
The NHTSA called the increase a sign of an "epidemic of death" on the roadways and said more states must pass laws regulating cell phone use while driving. Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of fatalities in 2014, according to the data, which they expected to be about the same level by the end of 2015.
Car fatalities have been on the decline for about two decades, as crash testing has become more stringent and public messaging about seatbelts has become more effective, according to Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the nation's largest car safety research group. And they dipped a full 10 percent at the depths of the recession in 2008, when fewer people were driving.
"Cars are getting much safer, incredibly safe," Dingus told VICE News, noting that for the first time last year six or eight car models had zero fatalities. "So fatalities should be coming down. It certainly isn't due to design. It could be distraction from a wide variety of sources."
Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said there wasn't enough hard data on distracted driving to know whether it was the real culprit for the rise in numbers.
"It's much more likely, given past experience, that the economic upswing is having the biggest effect on the fatality numbers. There's no question that distraction is a big problem, but we don't have any evidence that it's getting worse. It's always been a big problem even before we all had cell phones," Rader said.
In fact, cars with built-in bluetooth systems that allow users to make calls without looking at their phones have helped improve safety, Dingus said. But as cars get smarter, people are becoming more distracted, he said.
"We've done lot of studies over the years showing that any entertainment system or after market device [sold after the car has already been purchased] like a cell phone where you choose to take eyes off of the road for a relatively long period of time, 2 or 3 seconds even, definitely increases your crash risk, and it's always a concern with smart phones and texting and browsing and things like that," Dingus said.
"Any eye glance away from the road for 2 seconds or more really increases risk," Dingus said.
The spike in 2015 follows a record-low for traffic fatalities in 2014, and some numbers remained consistent year over year, including drunk driving deaths, which accounted for about a third of the fatalities, and deaths among those who were speeding, not wearing seat belts, or not wearing helmets when driving motorcycles, according to the NHTSA. Pedestrian deaths also increased.
"These numbers are a call to action," Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "Everyone with a responsibility for road safety—the federal, state and local governments, law enforcement, vehicle manufacturers, safety advocates and road users—needs to reassess our efforts to combat threats to safety. USDOT will redouble our efforts on safety and we expect our partners to do the same."
The NHTSA said during the announcement that they were launching safety campaigns to work with state and federal government officials to try and bring down the fatality numbers by focusing on how to address reckless driving, including speeding, driving under the influence, driving while tired or distracted, and failing to use seat belts.