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2600: US annual death toll for phone-causing car crashes

One in 20 highway deaths - study

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Mobile phone-related car crashes are responsible for 1 in 20 highway deaths in the US, but laws to prevent them are costly, according to a new Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA) report.

The statistics contained in the report offer a damning indictment of individuals who use mobile phones while driving, with one figure claiming that phone-related auto accidents account for 2,600 deaths in the US per year.

The research, which is an update to similar work carried out two years ago, says that mobile phone-related car crashes are linked to 330,000 moderate to critical injuries and 240,000 minor injuries per year in the US. There are an additional 1.5 million instances of property damage due to these types of events.

Importantly, the study noted that "the data on cell phone use by motorists are still limited" and "the range of uncertainty is wide." In fact, the study says that the estimate of fatalities ranges between 800 and 8,000, and the estimate of injuries is between 100,000 and 1 million.

In 2000, nearly 42,000 people were killed on US highways and close to 3.2 million were injured, US Department of Transportation (DOT) figures say. On a proportional basis, 15 people per 100,000 were killed in road accidents in the US in 2000, compared to around 11 per 100,000 in Ireland for the same year.

Assuming a typical phone usage time of 600 minutes per driver per year, the Harvard study said that the risk of death to a driver using a mobile phone, a so-called voluntary risk, is approximately 13 per 1 million drivers. The risk of death to other roadway users and pedestrians, known as involuntary risk, is approximately 4 per 1 million per year. By comparison, the odds for pedestrians and other drivers of being killed by a drunken motorist are more than four times as high, or 18 in a million.

Joshua Cohen, author of the HRCA report, said: "While the risk to any individual driver or passenger or pedestrian is very low,because so many people use cell phones now, the overall risk to society raises an important issue for policy makers."

Interestingly, the report does not conclude that urgent action must be taken. Instead it notes that the overall economic benefits of drivers using phones could be greater than the cost that is incurred by accidents.

According to Cohen, a national ban on the use of phones while driving would save $43bn per year in reduced medical costs, reduced property damage and estimates of what people would be willing to pay to avoid suffering and death. But those savings are roughly equal to the economic value of the banned calls, also around $43bn annually, with an error range of between $17 bn and $151bn.

"While there is still a lot of uncertainty, the central values indicate that, in economic terms, a ban on the use of cell phones by drivers would be a wash when comparing the benefit of reducing crashes against the cost of eliminating those calls," Cohen said.

In March, Ireland's then-Minister for Housing and Urban Renewal, Bobby Molloy, announced a ban on the use of handheld mobile phones while driving. The ban was to be included in the Road Traffic Bill and repeat offenders were to incur a penalty of €435 and up to three months imprisonment. The Gardai have since said that no one has been prosecuted in Ireland under the mobile ban. The bill is still under review with the attorney general and no date has been set for it to go before the Dail.

ENN

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