Why you can’t understand the texting and driving problem in one chart, in one chart

The other day I argued that focus on the “texting-white-driving epidemic” diverts attention from the dangers of driving generally. Here’s a different direction.

The contemporary fascination with using data to tell stories runs up against the need to tell stories in the length of a tweet or in one chart, sometimes resulting in data-focused news that uninforms people rather than informing them.

So, I may not be able to tell the whole teen car death story in one chart, but I can show that you can’t reduce the whole teen car death story to a texting epidemic in one chart (source).

cellphones traffic deaths with NEJM.xlsx

The rate at which teen drivers are involved in fatal crashes has fallen 55% in the last 10 years, faster than the rate for all other age groups (which are also falling). This is part of a long term trend, which has accelerated in the last 10 years. Between 2002 and 2008 alone, the number of text messages sent in the US increased from almost none to more than 100 million per month.* According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, reported in Pediatrics, 45% of teens say they texted while driving in the past 30 days — compared with only 10% who said they drove when they had been drinking. An astonishing 12% of teens said they text while driving every day.**

Far be it from me to decide what the public pays attention to. However, we should understand that in this era of distraction there is an opportunity cost to focusing on any one thing. For example (source):


Incidentally, there is a possible clue in that Pediatrics article as to why accident rates aren’t rising due to all this texting. The teens who text while driving are much more likely to engage in other risky behaviors: driving drunk, riding with drunk drivers, and not wearing seatbelts. So texting deaths may to some extent be displacing deaths those same teens would have caused in other ways.

Follow this series of posts at the texting tag.


*Thank linked paper argues that texting is contributing to the increase in distracted driving deaths, based on cellphone subscription rates and texts sent per month. It’s plausible but not entirely convincing, because I have doubts about the measure of distracted driving deaths (which rely on local police reports, fluctuate wildly, and include lots of labels, including “carelessness”). They don’t analyze the trend in total traffic deaths.

**This fact may be the source of the myth that 11 teens die from texting and driving every day (less than 8 die daily from all motor vehicle accidents), because someone got carried away by lab studies showing texting while driving was as dangerous as drinking and driving and just extrapolated.



Filed under Uncategorized

4 responses to “Why you can’t understand the texting and driving problem in one chart, in one chart

  1. Melissa

    Part of the decline for teens (since their rate goes even lower than young adults) is that a much smaller portion of 16-19 year olds even have drivers licenses (your chart does not control for % in age group who are “drivers”–which fell a lot). i.e., they are delaying getting drivers licenses. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/the-dramatic-30-year-decline-of-young-drivers-in-1-chart/260126/. Maybe if they drove in the same #s as in the past (plus were texting at today’s rate), the line for teens would be more flat)


    • Right, so this chart is less about texting impact on accident rates and more about the social problem of driver fatalities. (but you are violating info graphic norms by using one “in one chart” chart to enhance a discussion of another.)


  2. Crystal

    I think accidents have fallen because: one, cars (even compacts) have gotten much safer over the years; two, drunk driving rates have declined – driving while drunk is now severely disapproved of and punished, whereas in the Mad Men days it was no big deal to drive after having had a few. Third, I see crash rates decling for older women in particular, because today’s older women, for the most part, have always driven, rather than having to learn for the first time in their 60’s and older after their husbands died. Your stereotypical “scary old lady driver” of yesteryear never learned to drive until her chauffeur-husband died, found herself a first-time driver in her 60’s, and drove a huge underpowered “land yacht.” So things really have improved as far as road safety is concerned.

    And agreed that people who text while driving probably do other “poor executive function” risky things too, which ups their fatality rates. Teenagers are still learning, and don’t have fully developed brains and executive functions yet, so it’s not that “teens will text and this is bad” but “teens will do dumb risky things in general, and texting while driving is just one of them.”


  3. Pingback: Research on teen crashes confirms that reporters selling books on phone risks hype phone risks | Family Inequality

Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s