05/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mobile Phones and Traffic Deaths (What Am I Missing?)

Everyone knows phones and other devices are a major source of distraction to drivers, with deadly consequences. Six states -- including New York and California -- ban handheld phones while driving. The New York Times is running a major series on the danger, reporting that 11% of drivers are on the phone at any one time, causing 2,600 deaths per year.

I don't doubt the danger. But this is my question: Where is the upward trend in traffic deaths and accidents? The number of wireless phone subscribers increased by 10-times from 1994 to 2006, but the rate of traffic fatalities per mile traveled dropped 18% during that time. Here's my chart based on those numbers.


I don't doubt it's dangerous to talk on the phone while driving, and texting is reportedly even worse. So I'm left with a few possible explanations. First, maybe cars are just safer. So there is an increase in accidents but fewer deaths per mile driven. Second, maybe distracted driving is more likely to cause minor collisions, because people jabber and text less in high-risk situations. (OK, I checked it out and those explanations won't do: Accidents causing property damage only, per mile driven, have also declined, by 24%, from 1994 to 2007.)

Or third -- and I like this idea, though I have no evidence for it -- maybe phone-based distractions are replacing other distractions, like eating, grooming, listening to music, supervising children, or interacting with other passengers.

Can you explain this?

(And no, I don't work for the telecommunications industry.)