Distraction: Driving and cell phone use

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the iconic iPhone. Similar to what Apple’s visionary team did for the music industry with the introduction of the iPod in October 2001, Apple reinvented the smartphone by introducing a handheld device featuring a touchscreen and a virtual keyboard with capabilities including the ability to play music, send and receive e-mail, browse the web, send and receive text messages, and follow GPS navigation. Almost two-thirds of Americans owned a smartphone (either an iPhone or other smartphone brands) in 2016, representing a threefold increase from 2010.*

Driven to distraction

Distracted driving has always been around, whether an individual was leaning over to pick up an eight-track that had fallen under the car seat, eating a meal, shaving, applying makeup, fiddling with the entertainment/navigation system, or reading the paper—any action other than driving while operating a motor vehicle impedes safety. The smartphone, however, has taken distracted driving to a new level. Texting is the most alarming activity when the user is behind the wheel, because reading or sending a text takes your eyes off the road for up to five seconds. If you were driving at 55 miles per hour, that driving distraction is the equivalent of driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed.

In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic, and Safety Administration (NHTSA), 391,000 people were injured and 3,477 were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Teenagers were the largest age group reported as driving distracted at the time of a fatal crash.† During daylight hours, upward of 660,000 drivers are using smartphones while driving, which is a startling number of vehicles on the road with distracted drivers.

The percentage of passenger-vehicle drivers visibly manipulating handheld devices or text messaging remained constant in 2015 at 2.2 percent. These findings are from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey, which is conducted annually by trained data collectors observing at probabilistically sampled intersections under the auspices of NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

To examine the occurrence of drivers injured while using a handheld interactive electronic device in the National Trauma Data Bank® (NTDB®) research admission year 2015, medical records were searched using the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), 10th Revision, Clinical Modification codes. Specifically searched were records that contained a code of V40-V49A (car occupant) that had a post-decimal place value of zero (driver) and an activity code of Y93.C2 (handheld interactive electronic device). A total of six records were found that contained a discharge status, including five patients discharged to home and one to a nursing home (see Figure 1). Of these patients, 83 percent were male, on average 28 years of age, had an average hospital length of stay of 3.3 days, and an average injury severity score of 8.6. Of those tested for alcohol, two out of five were positive and over the legal limit.

Figure 1. Discharge status

Figure 1. Discharge status

Make sure teens get the message

In the transition to ICD-10, the numbers of distracted drivers reported in the NTDB may be relatively low for this year, but the magnitude of the problem remains significant, especially for teenage drivers. Parents should lead by example and have conversations with younger-age drivers about the risks of distracted driving. Educators and employers can play a role by spreading the word at school or in the workplace. Help all drivers, especially teenagers, avoid the attraction to driving with distraction.

Throughout the year, we will be highlighting these data through brief reports that will be found monthly in the Bulletin. The NTDB Annual Report 2016 is available on the American College of Surgeons website as a PDF file on the ACS website. In addition, information is available on our website about how to obtain NTDB data for more detailed study. To submit your trauma center’s data, contact Melanie L. Neal, Manager, NTDB, at mneal@facs.org.


Statistical support for this article was provided by Ryan Murphy, Data Analyst, NTDB.

*Statista. Telecommunications. Smartphone penetration rate as share of the population in the United States from 2010 to 2022. Available at: www.statista.com/statistics/201183/forecast-of-smartphone-penetration-in-the-us/. Accessed September 5, 2017.

United States Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving. Available at: www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving. Accessed September 5, 2017.

United States Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts. Driver Electronic Device Use in 2015. Available at: www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.dot.gov/files/documents/driver_electronic_device_use_in_2015_0.pdf. Accessed September 5, 2017.

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