The methods of collecting the data are so flawed that it's not clear how many road deaths are caused by distracted driving, says the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. But Bruce Landsberg is sure of this much: "This is an epidemic." The toll goes beyond deaths, he said, per the Los Angeles Times. "There are hundreds of thousands or more life-altering injuries—broken limbs, brain injuries, horrible burns," he said. "This doesn’t have to happen." Landsberg is working with a group trying to solve the data problem, then use the information to elicit overdue change from automakers, cellphone makers, software companies, and drivers.
"If we can't show it's a problem, then we can't focus attention and resources on fixing it," said Robyn Robertson of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. As it is, neither drivers nor lawmakers understand its scope, Robertson said, and laws designed to crack down on distracted driving run into resistance. The official statistics attribute less than 10% of highway deaths in 2020 to distracted driving, but the National Distracted Driving Coalition, which Robertson and Landsberg are involved in, puts the real share at 25% to 30%. The organization intends to use machine learning and other new technologies to come up with more accurate data.
The reasons it's difficult to come up with true numbers are multiple, per the Times. The current crash data system is decades old, its technology outdated. Police and states don't use a uniform method of compiling the data, with some still filing paper accident report forms that lack a way to address distracted driving. It's difficult to prove a driver was on a cellphone at the time. And whether a driver's attention was diverted can be a murky issue. "You're either speeding or you're not. You're either impaired or you’re not," Robertson said. "When it comes to distractions, it's less clear-cut." (Read more distracted driving stories.)