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NHTSA: Fatal car crashes rising, but not because of cell phones

2017 Toyota Prius Prime infotainment.jpg
The all-new 2017 Toyota Prius Prime got an 11.6 infotainment screen that manages everything from audio to climate. However, according to a new study by the NHTSA, it isn't infotainment systems like this -- or cell phone usage while driving -- that is causing fatal car crashes to rise. (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

The federal government has released its statistical analysis of every fatal crash in 2016, and the results are surprising. The number of fatal accidents per mile traveled increased by 2.6 percent compared to 2015—and it’s not because of distracted drivers.

The total number of fatal accidents jumped a startling 5.6 percent, though that number also reflects a 2.2 percent increase overall traffic. However, while the overall trend was in the wrong direction, distracted driving deaths decreased 2.2 percent. That means that for all the talk of distracting infotainment systems, and for all the complaints of drivers using cell phones, the number of fatalities they cause actually decreased.


While the NHTSA's data doesn’t offer deeper insight into the collisions beyond the immediate causes, the trends run contrary to public perception. Distracted driving — while unquestionably still both a) extremely dangerous and b) the fourth ranking cause of fatal accidents — has been a hot-button topic of late. Even Apple made waves earlier this year when it announced a new feature on iOS 11 that prevented drivers from using their phone if it’s paired to a car.

Instead of distractions, the patterns in 2016 highlight the unfortunate rise of some old standbys. The three largest causes of fatal accidents, drunk driving, speeding, and failing to use a seatbelt, all saw gains. Drunk driving, was the main factor in 10,497 fatalities, remained the number one overall cause, but not by much. With increases over 2015 of 4.6 percent and 4.0 percent, respectively, unbelted (10,428) and speeding drivers (10,111) are now virtually in a three-way tie for the main cause of traffic deaths.

Also seeing large increases were motorcyclists (up 5.1 percent), and pedestrians (up 9.0 percent).

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