Last week, we detailed the sad story of “The Saga of Young Joe,” a vibrant 21-year-old who lost his life in an alcohol related single car accident. This week, we follow up with how Joe also became a statistic in the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) group of fatalities and crashes directly related to cell phone and texting use while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.
If you recall the “Saga of Young Joe,” in addition to having one too many alcoholic beverages he was also interrupted and distracted by his cell phone when he failed to negotiate a sharp curve a
t high speed in his Javelin 390 muscle car.
This new “texting” statistic reveals that cell phone use and texting while driving causes near 20-percent of all accidents reported, not just the fatal ones.
The NHTSA recently unveiled its new “distraction-affected crashes” data and it’s very disturbing. NHTSA lists “distracted driving” as any driver that texts, uses a cell or smart phone, eats and drinks, grooms oneself, reads, uses a navigation system, watches a video or adjusts a car stereo system, CD or MP3.
However, NHTSA stresses that sending and receiving text messages requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention and is by far the most alarming distraction drivers engage in on a regular basis. Additionally, NHTSA says that an increase in estimated fatalities during the first six months of 2015 proves that reinforcement against texting while driving needs to improve.
Specifically, the first six months of 2015 reveals an increase of 8.1-percent in the number of driving fatalities, a very troubling stat versus the same period last year.
“These numbers are a call to action,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Everyone with a responsibility for road safety – the federal, state and local governments, law enforcement, vehicle manufacturers, safety advocates and road users – needs to reassess our efforts to combat threats to (highway) safety.”
NHTSA will hold meetings that deal with drunk, drugged, distracted and drowsy driving; speeding; failure to use safety features such as seat belts and child seats; and new initiatives to protect vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
“Behavioral safety programs are the heart of NHTSA’s safety mission,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “While great public attention is focused on safety defects and recalls, and rightfully so, it is time as a nation to reinvigorate the fight against drunk and drugged driving, distraction and other risks that kill thousands every year, and time for state and local governments to reassess whether they are making the right policy choices to improve highway safety.”
Although final 2015 numbers will not be available until 2016, it is clear that NHTSA experts are worried about the uptick in drunk and text related accidents.
Additional 2014 crash data show:
* Drunk driving crashes continue to represent roughly one-third of fatalities, resulting in 9,967 deaths in 2014.
* Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of all crash fatalities in 2014, with 3,179 people dead. This number is estimated to climb to 3,400 for 2015 and perhaps even higher as more people are leisure driving thanks to lower fuel prices.
Further, NHTSA says that in 2014, 71-percent of teens and young people say they have composed and sent text/SMS messages while driving and 78-percent of teens and young adults say they have read a text/SMS message while driving. These statistics indicate that just about every driver on the highway nowadays has experienced firsthand someone texting and weaving all over the road while driving.
With most every state banning the use of hand held texting while driving, it is important to look at how texting has affected the way people communicate in the modern era. Recent averages include a staggering monthly average of 154 billion (Yes-BILLION!) text messages are sent in the US. The result is an estimated 452,000 people injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. As sobering as these numbers are, expect the numbers to go higher when the latest stats are released based on more young drivers joining our driver databases.
Additionally, NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) now records a broad range of potential distractions. NHTSA information indicates that driver distraction continues to be a significant problem given the difficulty of proof and a driver’s reluctance to admit texting/phone distractions. There is also a lack of witnesses or the actual death of the driver. NHTSA also believes the actual number of distracted crashes could be much higher than the estimated 450,000-plus injured in distraction related crashes. Further, the U.S. Department of Transportation is leading the effort to stop texting and cell phone use behind the wheel.
It is my hope as an auto columnist that education starts at home. Please pass this column around to young drivers to read as the NHTSA stats point to the under-20 age group causes the highest number of distracted driver accidents overall. Here are more extremely disturbing facts compiled by NHTSA, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and NOPUS (National Occupant Protection Use Survey).

1. Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded.
2. A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive, and 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.
3. At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 675,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving.
4. Engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by 300 percent.
5. Drivers in their 20s make up 27 percent of the distracted driver fatal crashes.
6. Perhaps the worst statistic of all, nearly 50-percent of high school students text while driving, accident or no accident. Parental supervision can really help in this category.
In summary, texting while driving has become as serious a problem as driving while intoxicated. More and more campaigns, starting in grade school, should be implemented to help curb this obsession with the cell phone and texting. Educators are urged to contact the NHTSA as campaigns and videos are available to get to the problem before students receive their driver permits.
Further, auto manufacturers should consider eliminating “distractions” such as options that impact driver awareness like confusing touch screen video/stereo displays, cumbersome climate and navigation systems and other ancillary entertainment/climate systems.
As we all enjoy the 2015 holiday season, please drive safely and have a very happy New Year. Thanks also to NHTSA, the government’s www.distracted.gov site, and all the other organizations that provided important statistics for these annual Saga of Young Joe and Distracted Driving columns, a big thank you for your cooperation.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now, BestRide.com and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader questions on old cars, auto nostalgia and old-time motorsports at 116 Main St., Towanda, PA 18848 or at greg@gregzyla.com.