While mobile phones are a real distraction in the car and their use can result in serious accidents, real life accident data indicates that mobile phone use does not contribute significantly to crashes or fatalities.

A study that analysed more than eight million actual hands-free phone calls placed over a period of five years found only two confirmed cases of crashes that occurred during phone use. 

Some state highway authorities in the US have compiled detailed information on crash statistics and have specifically listed using a cell phone or two-way radio as a contributing cause for the crash.  For example, in Minnesota in 2007 “Driver on Cell Phone or CB Radio” accounts for some 0.2% across single or multiple vehicle crashes across all age groups.  The Tennessee Department of Safety has data available from 2003 to 2007 using a “Telephone or Two-Way Radio”, which listed these factors as the cause of an accident in 0.35% in 2003; 0.32% in 2004; 0.36% in 2005; 0.37% in 2006 and 0.33% in 2007.

Other studies in the USA show alcohol is a factor in approximately 41 per cent of all fatal traffic crashes and in six per cent of all crashes.  In comparison, data collected by state highway authorities shows mobile phones have been a factor in an estimated one half of one per cent of all crashes and they are more likely to be a minor, rear-end collision.

Australian crash and fatality research

A recent analysis of 340 serious casualty crashes in Victoria and NSW between 2000 and 2011, using data gleaned from forensic examination of crash scenes and anonymous interviews with drivers has found that in 0.9 per cent of crashes the driver was using a mobile phone.

The study from the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) found that intoxicated drivers caused 13.5 per cent of crashes, drivers falling asleep resulted in 11.8 per cent of crashes and 3.2 per cent of crashes were caused by passenger interactions.

The MUARC study found the most common subtypes of inattention were restricted attention, primarily due to intoxication and/or fatigue, and diverted attention or distraction.

The most common types of distraction involved voluntary, non-driving related distractions originating within the vehicle, such as passenger interactions.

The study used data gleaned from forensic examination of crash scenes and anonymous interviews with drivers and found the causes of crashes related to inattention and distraction ranked in order of importance in the table below.

MUARC study of 340 casualty crashes in VIC and NSW 2000-2011 
13.5% Intoxication 
11.8% Fell asleep
10.9% Fatigued
3.2% Failed to look
3.2% Passenger interaction
2.6% Felt ill 
2.6%  Blacked out 
1.8% Feeling stressed 
1.5%  Looked but failed to see
1.4%  Animal or insect in vehicle 
0.9%  Using a mobile phone 
0.9% Changing CD/cassette/radio 
0.9% Adjusting vehicle systems
0.9% Looking at vehicle systems 
0.3%  Searching for object 

If using mobile phones is significantly dangerous then we could expect to see a dramatic increase in traffic accidents in the last decade.  In fact, the reverse is true. 

In Australia road fatalities have continued to decline and correlate with major road safety initiatives, such as the introduction of laws to enforce seatbelt wearing, the introduction of random breath testing and a mandatory 50km speed limit in residential areas.

Almost all Australian drivers now own a mobile phone, but the road fatality reduction has continued despite the exponential increase in mobile phone ownership over the last two decades. 

Another important point about the increasing use of mobile phones while driving in recent years - despite the decline in the road toll - is that the dramatic increase in use of mobiles also increases the chance of a fatal crash occurring when a driver is using a mobile phone (both legally or illegally) and this may or may not be a causal association.

Road-Toll-Versus-Mobiles

Despite the exponential growth in mobiles the road toll continues to decline in line with major road safety initiatives

It is often argued that the lack of crash data related to mobile phones is due to under reporting of the crash cause by drivers and the police, therefore, the potential risk is being understated. However, police have been collecting data for some time now in some states of Australia.

For example, the Road Traffic Authority maintains a publically available database of annual crash statistics in New South Wales, which includes reports from 1997 to 2011. All these reports include figures on the possible contribution of mobile phones in crashes.  More importantly, the data specifically records crashes in which ‘using hand-held telephone’ are a possible contributor to the crash.

Between 1997 and 2011 there were around 50,000 crashes each year on NSW roads and less than 0.1 per cent of all crashes were related to illegal hand-held mobile phone use.

Year Crashes for
"Using a
hand-held
telephone"
Total
Crashes
1997 16 50120
1998 32  52578 
1999 51 52866
2000 43 52914
2001 50 51814
2002 32 50448
2003 23 49266
2004 30 47310
2005 20 45554
2006 19 45528
2007 26 45395
2008 27 42833
2009 31 42952
2010 56 60084
2011 50 42953

Between 1997 and 2011 seven fatalities were recorded in which using a hand-held mobile phone was a possible contributing factor. However, it is not known to what extent other factors such as alcohol, speed and fatigue also contributed to these fatal crashes.

 


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