THURSDAY, Sept. 23, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Distracted driving fatalities caused by cell phone use and texting soared in the space of three years, according to new U.S. government research released Thursday.
Texting alone caused more than 16,000 deaths in car accidents from 2001 to 2007, the researchers estimated. But auto deaths involving cell phones and texting while driving rose 28 percent in just three years, from 4,572 in 2005 to 5,870 in 2008.
"The increases in distracted driving seem to be largely driven by increased use of cell phones to text," said lead researcher Fernando Wilson, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
"Overall use of cell phones have been pretty steady, but texting volumes have increased dramatically in the last few years," he added.
Distracted driving and its deadly toll was the focus of a government summit this week in Washington, D.C., at which officials called for tougher laws to counter the growing trend. They reported that more than 5,000 people were killed last year in distracted driving crashes.
In January, the government banned truck and bus drivers who travel interstate roadways from using a handheld device to send text messages.
The latest report, published online Sept. 23 in the American Journal of Public Health, uses data from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which recorded all fatalities that occurred on public roads in the United States from 1999 to 2008.
Wilson's team found that drunk drivers are less inhibited about using cell phones as they drive. And there were also increased crashes into light poles, trees and other objects, with men involved in growing numbers.
"All this is consistent with people not paying attention while they are driving," Wilson said.
Solving the problem is complex, Wilson noted. He has no ready answers, but he suggested that "we need technologies that inhibit cell phone use while driving" and that more effective law enforcement of cell phone bans would also help.
Frank Drews, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah, said that "this is a timely study that adds another piece to the literature on driver distraction."
Drews added: "With work like this, it will be a little bit harder to deny that cell phone use while driving has a significant negative impact on public safety. I think at this point, once again, the question comes to mind, how much more scientific evidence will politicians need to put laws in place that protect the public from the dangers associated with cell phone use while driving?"
Jennifer Smith, a board member of FocusDriven, which advocates against cell phone use while driving, put it more bluntly.
The more than 5,000 traffic deaths each year from cell phone use is "equivalent to a major airliner going down every week in this country," she said. "If that was happening, they would ground all flights until they figured out what the problem was and they solved it. But because everyone likes their cell phones, we have to debate this."
Smith noted that all cell phone use when driving -- including hands-free cell phone use -- is dangerous. "All we need to be doing in our cars is driving. No phone call is that important that you can't wait until you stop," she said.
For more on distracted driving, visit the U.S. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.