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Texting caused total 'distracted driving' deaths to rise, study finds

If not for texting behind the wheel, the number of deaths from 'distracted driving' would have dropped each year from 2002 to 2007, according to a study released Thursday.

By Correspondent / September 23, 2010

A billboard that encourages people not to text while they drive is shown in the northside of Indianapolis, on Sept. 17, 2009.

Michael Conroy/AP

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Texting while driving likely caused more than 16,000 road fatalities between 2002 and 2007, a new study finds.

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The study, which public safety officials say is yet yet another wake-up call about the dangers of cellphone use in automobiles, was released Thursday by the American Journal of Public Health. It comes on the heels of the US Department of Transportation’s second annual Distracted Driving Summit, during which Secretary Ray LaHood called for even more action to combat what he called a “unsafe, irresponsible, [and] devastating” behavior.

Distracted driving, Mr. LaHood said at this week’s conference, “is an epidemic. It’s an epidemic because everyone has a cellphone – and everyone thinks they can use it while driving. They can’t.”

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While attention to distracted driving has increased over the past year – awareness campaigns by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks have helped turn public opinion against the behavior – real numbers on texting-related deaths have been hard to pin down.

Federal agencies collect data on fatalities caused by “distracted driving,” which can include anything from talking on a cellphone to eating in the car. Although there have been laboratory and observational studies that have estimated the impact of cellphone usage while driving, there has been no way to tease out exactly how many crashes are caused by texting – or cellphone use overall.

“It’s extremely hard to measure causation,” says David Teater, senior director of the National Safety Council’s transportation strategic initiatives. “I believe [that] in all states there’s a mandatory blood alcohol test after a fatality.… There is nothing even close to that with distracted driving. There’s no way of knowing for sure.”

In the past, if the police did try to investigate whether cellphone usage was involved in a crash – not a regular occurrence, since for years talking on the phone while driving was not illegal – officers would typically have to rely on the driver’s word.

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