UNMC study: Distracted driving killing more pedestrians, bicyclists

by Vicky Cerino, UNMC public relations | November 22, 2013

Image with caption: Fernando Wilson, Ph.D.

Fernando Wilson, Ph.D.

From texting and talking on cell phones to eating while driving, researchers say distracted driving is a serious public health threat. Though motor vehicle deaths have been declining nationally, a recent study by researchers at UNMC found that deaths in pedestrians and cyclists are increasing.

From 2005 to 2010, the national number of pedestrians struck and killed by distracted drivers went up from 344 to 500 -- an almost 50 percent increase. For cyclists, the numbers killed went from 56 to 73 -- a 30 percent increase.

"We're constantly exposed to distracted drivers. I don't think there's a day that I don't see someone driving and using their cell phone, a lot of times they're texting," said Fernando Wilson, Ph.D., associate professor, UNMC College of Public Health. "It's something that's pervasive in society.

"It's not like seat belt usage and securing your child into a safety seat. If you don't do these things, which now are the social norm, it's viewed negatively. The laws are stricter. With cell phones, we don't have that social stigma. Not to mention that distracted driving is more difficult to enforce than other driving safety laws."

The report, published in the November-December issue of Public Health Reports, documents trends and characteristics of pedestrians, bicyclists, and other victim deaths caused by distracted drivers on U.S. public roads. The report doesn't document injuries.

See sidebar for more information on the UNMC study

Dr. Wilson believes statistics related to distracted driving may be underreported due to the difficulty of law enforcement proving distracted driving. That makes it difficult to affect policies to curb distracted driving.

"The evidence on policies curbing distracted driving is very mixed and some research suggests policies are just not working -- that we're not really making a dent on distracted driving," he said. "If that's the case, we need to think about marked crosswalks, bike paths -- the environment that tries to create a separation between pedestrians and bicyclists with traffic."

Dr. Wilson said the study also found that 65 percent of pedestrian victims of distracted driving crashes were male and between the ages of 25 and 64 years old and Caucasian. The victims also were more likely to be struck outside of a marked crosswalk and be in a city.

"People have to be aware that this problem is not going away anytime soon," Dr. Wilson said. "So when you're crossing the street or cycling, you need to be cognizant about this new threat to roadway safety."

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