Distracted driving blamed for 5,800 U.S. deaths

Wed Sep 30, 2009 1:46pm EDT
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By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Wednesday called distracted driving a serious epidemic with more than 5,800 annual U.S. traffic deaths tied to motorists who failed to keep their eyes on the road.

LaHood opened a two-day conference exploring research on cellphone use and text messaging while driving as well as other topics that can divert the attention of motorists.

"To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society and it seems to be getting worse every year," LaHood said, adding that it was an "extraordinarily serious epidemic."

Figures released at the conference by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed more than 5,800 distracted driving deaths and 515,000 injuries last year.

The fatality figures released by the government on distraction did not break down crashes by specific driver behavior. Broadly, safety officials identified cellphone use, texting, eating, talking to passengers and manipulating radio or vehicle controls as distractions.

The proportion of deadly accidents tied to distracted driving climbed from 11 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2008, according to the figures culled from police reports. By comparison, drunken driving accounted for roughly 30 percent of all fatalities.

Drivers under 20 years old were involved in 16 percent of distracted-driver fatal crashes. Those ages 20 to 29 accounted for another 12 percent.

The figures were significant but may not show the full problem since identifying distraction as a cause of crashes, especially in fatal accidents, can be difficult, transportation officials and safety experts acknowledged.   Continued...

<p>Traffic moves down Pennsylvania Avenue with the U.S. Capitol building in the background in Washington, August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Molly Riley</p>