10/21/2010 01:49 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Texting-Crash Epidemic -- That Isn't?

A new CDC report on fatal crashes among teenage drivers shows just what you would never expect with all the news and legislation concentrating on the epidemic of crashes caused by texting and phoning while driving. With 11% of drivers are on the phone at any one time, it's a serious problem.

I don't doubt the danger. But this is my question: Where is the upward trend in traffic deaths and accidents? Here is the figure for teen driving fatalities:

Annual rate per 100,000 population for drivers aged 16 or 17 years involved in fatal crashes, by age group (Fatality Analysis Reporting System, United States, 1990--2008). Source: CDC.

In the population overall, 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. But the argument that cars are just safer, or that texting causes a lot of minor accidents, doesn't fly, since accidents causing property damage only, per mile driven, have also declined, by 24%, from 1994 to 2007.

I still think phone-based distractions are replacing other distractions, like eating, grooming, listening to music, supervising children, or interacting with other passengers. Not that it's not dangerous, but its overall contribution to our risk profile doesn't match the size of its media and political footprint.

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