11/20/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Challenges of Distracted Driving

Few would disagree that distracted drivers pose a real danger to everyone on the road. Emotions run high on the topic. The image of a person driving while engaging in activity that kills or injures people will make anyone's blood pressure spike, particularly if you are a family member of one of the victims. Distraction is more than texting and cell phones; all distractions, such as eating, drinking, talking with passengers and reading directions, can comprise a driver's ability to focus.

Many traffic safety professionals struggle with this issue because it is difficult to fully understand. While some research at the national level has concluded that distractions were a factor in as many as 3,331 fatalities in 2011, state-level crash data does not capture sufficient detail to determine the scope of the problem or the impact current programs and safe driving messages are having.

To address any problem in traffic safety, you need to understand every aspect. That requires data and lots of it. Our primary source of data comes from the police crash report. If the information is not captured on the report, it is not available for analysis. In Michigan, we have been coding "distracted" and "cell phone use" on the crash report since 1999, but data on specific distractions is still a few years away and will require modifications to the crash report design. Changing the report is no simple task. Our report is electronic and changes are expensive. You don't change the report for only one data element and don't change it frequently due to cost. As a result, a high level of detail regarding distracted driving data is just beginning to be collected in Michigan and many other states.

Reliability of data is another challenge. A crash report consists of an investigating officer's opinions based on the facts and circumstances at a crash scene, interviews with witnesses, physical evidence, etc. Making determinations on whether a distraction was involved can be difficult, let alone what the distraction was. Many drivers will be less than forthcoming about whether they were on a cell phone. If the driver is alone in the vehicle and killed, statements from the driver are not available and you have to rely on other sources of information or cell phone records. Some agencies may not pursue search warrants for cell phone data in a single vehicle crash where the driver was the only occupant and is deceased. Therefore, reliability of data and underreporting are recognized as some of the biggest challenges with regard to distracted driving.

Limited resources are another challenge. Public resources should be utilized in the most cost-effective manner possible. The traffic safety mission is driving down fatalities and injuries as quickly as possible and showing results for the investment of finite public dollars.

In the world of finite resources, impaired driving from alcohol, drugs or other substances has historically been right there with seat belt use in terms of priorities. While some research has indicated that distracted driving is as dangerous as the impaired driver, more research and data are needed.

Here's why:

In Michigan over the last five years, there were 25 times more fatal crashes that involved alcohol and/or drugs as those that were identified as distraction-related. We know the problem is underreported, but by how much? In a very data-driven process, major funding investments to implement distracted driving countermeasures, when you don't know the full extent of the problem or have a reliable method to measure the impact of your countermeasures, are going to be challenging in the foreseeable future.

Lastly, there also needs to be consistency in how we define and code the data. Imagine hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers across the country policing crashes. Now imagine the challenge of making sure they all have relatively consistent training on how to define distracted driving and how to code it accurately in a crash report for future analysis by traffic safety professionals and researchers.

Distractions are a problem, of that I am confident. People typically don't run red lights or stop signs on purpose, which means they were doing something other than piloting the vehicle. Whether they were on a cell phone, texting, eating, drinking coffee, putting on eyeliner, day-dreaming or asleep is often difficult to determine. This information is crucial to moving forward with campaigns and programs that bring about real and meaningful change.

What we know for certain is that we are going to get better at making these determinations through improved technology, better investigative methods, and consistency in analyzing the data at the state and national level. We have to know what we are dealing with in order to implement countermeasures and measure the impact. Research, public policy development, strict enforcement of current laws, and public awareness will all play key roles in future efforts to address the distracted driving problem.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to