I changed the title of the article because a commentor asked me to. They win. Always.
I created the graph above to capture cell phone related fatalities by state. Cell phone related is a combination of three subsets within NHTSA's distracted driving data points.
The three sub categories of distracted driving in cell phone related include: Talking or Listening to Cellular Phone, Dialing Cellular Phone and Other Cellular Phone Related.
Below is the same data set from above only broken into the three separate categories. Any state not present is because FARS indicated that no cell phone related accident was reported in 2011:
Tennessee has a considerably higher number of fatalities listed under the category Other Cellular Phone Related.
According to NHTSA’s Distracted Driving fact sheet this code is used when:
Police Report indicated the driver is distracted from the driving task due to cellular phone involvement, but none of the specified codes are applicable (e.g., reaching for cellular phone, etc.). This code is also applied when specific details regarding cellular phone distraction/usage are not provided.
Why does Tennessee have such a high number of cell phone related fatalities?
In an attempt to unravel the truth behind the numbers, my brain almost exploded, twice. And my eyeballs - still burning.
Here is what I was able to come up with.
Total Tennessee Fatalities
NHTSA’s database shows that Tennessee had a total of 946 vehicle fatalities in 2011, but according to TN-FARS, the Tennessee Fatality Reporting System, the state recorded 937 vehicle fatalities in 2011 – a difference of 9.
That discrepancy, while small, is important. These are fatalities, not traffic citations. Every one counts. But why the discrepancy? The total number of people killed doesn't seem like a data point that offers much gray area.
Total Distracted Driving
To determine the total number of distracted driving fatalities in Tennessee for 2011 I ran an additional query in FARS (see image below - again, sorry for the tiny screen shots).
The total came to 1,344. It should be noted that this number is 398 more than total vehicle fatalities recorded for Tennessee in FARS.
At this point my brain starts to hurt. Clearly I’ve done something very wrong to produce these numbers.
It could be that I've mixed up drivers vs. vehicles - but all the other numbers, like Other Cellular Phone Related match the previously reported numbers. Maybe I am doing it right? Moving right along.
Two of the categories, Unknown If Distracted and Not Distracted (yes, this appears under Driver Distracted By), make up a majority of the total. These categories don’t appear to be counted in NHTSA’s distracted driving totals, so I won’t count them either.
Maybe NHTSA can help us understand what they mean.
Negating those two very large categories gives us a total of 169 total distracted driving fatalities for 2011.
Here’s a hypothetical
What if the 101 fatalities under “Other Cellular Phone Related” are incorrect?
Let’s assume the method by which the State of Tennessee transmits its vehicle fatality information from TN-FARS to FARS erroneously codes fatalities as Other Cellular Phone Related instead of Unknown or some other category.
Removing Other Cellular Phone Related cases gives us a new total: 68 distracted driving fatalities for 2011.
What did Tennessee have to say?
I reached out to Tennessee’s Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security who provided me the following figures on distracted driving fatalities in their state:
Based on this data distracted driving fatalities in Tennessee are down 21% year-over-year. That is good news.
Interestingly enough, the number of distracted driving fatalities recorded by the state for 2011, 71, is 98 less than what NHTSA has listed in FARS (minus the two confusing not-really-distracted-distracted categories).
The factors used by Tennessee to determine the numbers above:
Driver action codes
• Inattentive – eating, reading, talking, etc.
• Driver distraction
• Texting, PDA, Blackberry distraction
• GPS distraction
• Cellular in use in vehicle
• Computers, fax machine, printers
• On board navigation system
• Other electronic device
• Two-way radio
• Heads-up display
• Other inside vehicle
• Other outside vehicle
Just of note: On January 12, 2013, Tennessee’s Department of Safety and Department of Transportation issues this statement:
“In Tennessee, unrestrained motorists accounted for more than half (52.7%) of vehicle occupants killed in 2012. Other contributing factors in fatal crashes included speed and distracted driving, with 141 and 56 deaths, respectively.”
Advocates need Tennessee
Earlier this year advocacy groups used Tennessee’s low number of total vehicle fatalities and high number of distracted driving fatalities (as reported by NHTSA) as a basis for their argument that states are not accounting for distracted driving accurately. Which could still be true.
But the opposite could also be true - are states inadvertently reporting higher numbers?
Data really is the problem
The U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress are aware of the challenges regarding the collection of traffic fatality data writ large. NHTSA is working to improve the way data is captured from the states.
For distracted driving they’ve developed specific codes to capture distracted driving and worked with governor’s offices to educate law enforcement on the use of those codes during accident investigations.
Because policymakers rely on FARS data to make an array of policy decisions, from grants to automotive regulations; it is in the best interest of everyone to ensure that data is accurate.
Bad data, to include a lack of data, could result in bad policy.
Disclosure: Due to a lack of experience using/reading FARS, the world’s most confusing database, there is a possibility some of this information is wrong. Readers, to include you NHTSA, if there are any discrepancies, please bring them to my attention.