The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded, and researchers at the University of Nebraska have conducted, a study of fatalities due to distracted driving, Fatalities of Pedestrians, Bicycle Riders, and Motorists Due to Distracted Driving Motor Vehicle Crashes in the U.S., 2005–2010. It is online, here.
The report offers some interesting information, but it can very easily be misinterpreted, oddly excludes fatalities to distracted drivers themselves, and draws some unsupported conclusions about bicycling safety.
Nobody with any familiarity with the bicycling research literature would use the term “Bicycle Riders.” OK, that’s a nitpick but it gets better.
This is in the abstract:
Bicycling victims of distracted crashes were disproportionately male, non-Hispanic white, and struck by a distracted driver outside of a crosswalk.
This duplicates the wording for pedestrians and implies that bicyclists normally ride on sidewalks and in crosswalks.
The abstract also states, without qualification:
The rate of fatalities per 10 billion vehicle miles traveled increased from 116.1 in 2005 to 168.6 in 2010 for pedestrians and from 18.7 in 2005 to 24.6 in 2010 for bicyclists.
No such increase of approximately 30% in bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities has been seen. Why? Because, as the text on page 437 indicates, these numbers apply only to crashes due to distracted driving. There are many other crashes, and the rate of those has been going down.
Also, oddly, the study does not count fatalities to distracted drivers themselves. This is in a footnote to Figure 3, on page 439:
Motorist fatalities include motor vehicle passengers and non-distracted drivers involved in a distracted driving-related crash. Drivers who were distracted and died in the crash were excluded.
As the text of the report describes, only “victims” were counted. Why? The distracted drivers died too.
Statistics on drunk driving count everyone who died including the drunk drivers. Now, there may be a reasonable explanation for a different method with distracted driving: that it is harder to determine whether a dead person had been distracted, than drunk. But the report doesn’t explain this. In any case, it should be possible to arrive at a good estimate based on other data, and we don’t get a true picture of the extent of the problem unless we count everyone.
And, about countermeasures:
Thus, our findings highlight the need for policy solutions emphasizing primary prevention of driving while distracted. Potential solutions may include implementing clear and lighted crosswalk markings, constructing sidewalks, and creating separate bicycle lanes with barriers to separate bicyclists from traffic.
The recommendation about bicycling is a typical “knee jerk” recommendation from researchers who have no expertise about bicycling. Aside from the fact that a bike lane, by definition, is not behind a barrier, the report cites exactly two recent studies by advocates for separate bicycle facilities — whose focus is primarily on increasing mode share by creating the appearance of safety — with no reference to the larger body of research literature which indicates higher crash rates for such designs. As usual in epidemiological studies, there is no examination of crash causation. An examination of the patterns of crash types when distracted driving is involved, compared with other crashes, would certainly be helpful, but there is none here.