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Study: Distracted driving deaths underreported

FILE - This Nov. 3, 2011 file photo shows, from left, Brock Raffaele of Cadillac, Mich. and Sault High students Lauren Gee, Conner Langendorf, and Emma Harrington, taking the KDR Challenge and sign the banner as speaker Bonnie Raffaele, right, watches in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.. Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Raffaele's last words were over a cell phone to a friend: "I'm going to crash!" The car she was driving had clipped a snow bank and spun into oncoming traffic, where it was t-boned by an SUV. She died at a hospital without regaining consciousness. Police chalked the accident up to mistakes made by a novice driver, unaware that she had been on the phone at the time.(AP Photo/The Evening News, Mike McKee)

FILE - This Nov. 3, 2011 file photo shows, from left, Brock Raffaele of Cadillac, Mich. and Sault High students Lauren Gee, Conner Langendorf, and Emma Harrington, taking the KDR Challenge and sign the banner as speaker Bonnie Raffaele, right, watches in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.. Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Raffaele's last words were over a cell phone to a friend: "I'm going to crash!" The car she was driving had clipped a snow bank and spun into oncoming traffic, where it was t-boned by an SUV. She died at a hospital without regaining consciousness. Police chalked the accident up to mistakes made by a novice driver, unaware that she had been on the phone at the time.(AP Photo/The Evening News, Mike McKee)

Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Raffaele’s last words were over a cell phone to a friend: “I’m going to crash!” The car she was driving had clipped a snow bank and spun into oncoming traffic, where it was T-boned by an SUV. She died at a hospital without regaining consciousness.

The police chalked the accident up to mistakes made by a novice driver, unaware that she had been on the phone at the time. Her phone was found later in the back seat, and the possibility that distracted driving might have been a cause is missing from statistics kept by the police and the federal agency that compiles crash data.

Crash deaths in cases where drivers were on the phone are seriously underreported, according to a recent analysis of state and federal data by the National Safety Council, an advocacy group. The underreporting makes the problem of distracted driving appear less significant than it actually is, and impedes efforts to win passage of tougher laws, the council says.

The group reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 in which there was strong evidence that the driver had been using a cell phone, in a study paid for in part by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

Of the 2011 crashes, only half were coded in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s accident database as involving cell phone use, the study found. That was still better than previous years: Only 8 percent of the 2009 crashes examined were coded as involving cell phones, and 35 percent in 2010.

Even when drivers admitted to authorities that they were using a phone during an accident in which someone was killed, about half the cases weren’t recorded that way in the database, the council said.

The safety administration’s database shows more than 32,000 traffic deaths overall in 2011, the latest year for which complete data are available. But only 385 are listed as involving phones.

“We believe the number of crashes involving cell phone use is much greater than what is being reported,” said Janet Foetscher, the safety council’s president and CEO. “Many factors, from drivers not admitting cellphone use to a lack of consistency in crash reports being used to collect data at the scene, make it very challenging to determine an accurate number.”

One reason for the underreporting is that unless a driver, passenger or witness tells the police a cell phone was being used, officers who respond to crash scenes may have no reason to investigate that possibility.

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