Your phone is spying on you. It’s sometimes a blabbermouth that reveals more secrets about you than you want to admit even to yourself. It tells advertisers when you Google health conditions you’d rather not share with others. It knows where you go, when you speed, and which locations you spend time at. It knows when you waste time at work texting friends or looking for a new romantic interest on dating websites. If your phone is stolen it will sometimes tell thieves how to steal money from your bank account or credit cards. I use mine to locate the aisle where an item I need is at Walmart and Kroger.
You know what else your phone knows? It knows when you have an auto accident while distracted by your phone. The New York Times worries that the federal government and state authorities don’t investigate nor keep track of how often cell phones play a role in car wrecks.
Cellphones can track what we say and write, where we go, what we buy and what we search on the internet. But they still aren’t being used to track one of the biggest public health threats: crashes caused by drivers distracted by the phones.
The absence of clear data comes as collisions are rising. Car crashes recorded by the police rose 16 percent from 2020 to 2021, to 16,700 a day from 14,400 a day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2021, nearly 43,000 Americans died in crashes, a 16-year high.
In 2021, only 377 fatal wrecks — just under 1 percent — were reported as having involved a cellphone-distracted driver, according to the traffic agency. About 8 percent of the 2.5 million nonfatal crashes that year involved a cellphone, according to the highway agency’s data.
Years ago, I was leaving my office for lunch. From the left turn lane, I pulled out to cross Coit Road to head south. At that moment a lady in a Chevy Tahoe heading north locked her brakes and screeched to a halt to avoid running me over. She had a terrified look on her face with her cellphone still in her hand pressed against her head. She didn’t notice her light had changed or possibly that there was even an intersection coming up.
Had she hit me I wonder if anyone would have bothered to check her cellphone records against the time of the accident? Who knows, before the age or ubiquitous security cameras she may have even claimed she had the right-of-way and I pulled out in front of her. It’s not that difficult to connect cellphone use to auto accidents. Trial lawyers sometimes subpoena cellphone records to see if a crash was caused by phone use. This is mainly to blame the employer and sue them too. It takes time and effort to investigate phone use during a traffic accident so it is often not done.
The police can access cellphone records, but the process is cumbersome and privacy laws require a subpoena. Even then, further analysis must be done to link a driver’s phone activity with the timing of a crash.
“That analysis is expensive, and unless the police really think there is a criminal case, they don’t do it,” said Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah and an expert in the science of driver distraction. He added that “unless someone fesses up to using the phone, the police don’t consider it to be a factor.”
“Your phone leaves lots of breadcrumbs, but nobody is looking at them,” he said.
People rarely admit they were distracted by cellphones. If I’m in my car and there is someone ahead of me driving really slow and erratic, I play a little game of guess whether the driver is on the phone. I’m rarely wrong.
Drivers may not admit distractions to the police but they do admit to the behavior in anonymous surveys. In a nationally representative survey in 2022, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that about 20 percent of drivers said they regularly scrolled social media, read email, played games, watched videos or recorded and posted them while driving.
I don’t necessarily want my phone to divulge more information about me than it already does. But neither do I want a repeat of the 5,500-pound Chevy Tahoe lady nearly T-boning me in my little 3,000 pound sports car.