Washington -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the number of people killed in distracted driving crashes rose in 2011, but fewer were injured.

The agency also found driver behavior with cellphones isn't dramatically changing, despite a flurry of new state laws.

NHTSA says 3,331 people were killed in 2011 in crashes involving distracted drivers, accounting for 10 percent of all traffic deaths. That's up from 3,092 distraction-related deaths in 2010. But the number of people injured fell from 416,000 in 2010 to 387,000 in 2011. The number injured in crashes involving cellphone use is also dropping: from 24,000 in 2010 to 21,000 in 2011.

The number of crashes affected by a distracted driver fell from 900,000 in 2010 to 826,000 in 2011, while the number involving cellphone use rose slightly from 47,000 in 2010 to 50,000 in 2011.

NHTSA said more than 6,000 people age 16 and older were interviewed by phone for the National Survey on Distracted Driving Attitudes and Behaviors. Almost half of drivers said they answer an incoming call, and one-quarter are willing to place a call. The survey found slightly fewer are willing to make a call while driving compared to 2010 -- 28 percent to 24 percent in the new survey. But there is little, if any, change in those who answer a call while driving -- from 52 percent to 49 percent. Of those surveyed, 40 percent said they never answer phone calls while driving.


Advertisement

In recent weeks, major automakers have been lobbying the White House to hold off finalizing voluntary guidelines for automakers to prevent distracted driving.

The guidelines proposed in February 2012 by the NHTSA are aimed at keeping drivers' focus on the task at hand. NHTSA's guidelines would limit device operation to one hand, leaving the other hand for the steering wheel; limit to two seconds the time needed to look away from the road to operate devices for no more than 12 seconds per task; limit unnecessary visual information in the driver's field of view; and limit the inputs required for device operation, among other proposals.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade association that represents Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and seven other automakers, wants NHTSA to rethink its approach by creating guidelines that would apply to both automakers and cellphone companies.

But NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told reporters Thursday that the agency thinks its approach makes the most sense and said he still thinks they will be released soon. "We anticipate them to be released fairly soon," Strickland said. "Because this is an evolving issue, we felt that the phased approach is clearly the best approach."

Automakers worry that if the guidelines are unveiled and restrict vehicle technology, it could push drivers to opt for more unsafe behavior with hand-held phones. "The best thing to do is get everybody around a table and to try to drive a more expeditious comprehensive solution," " said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the auto alliance. "Because of the penetration and utilization of smartphones, you have to have a comprehensive approach."

NHTSA should work with automakers, app developers and cellphone makers to develop guidelines to more broadly address the issue of distracted driving, Bainwol said.

Bainwol met last month with the White House Office of Management and Budget, and held a separate meeting with the National Transportation Safety Board chair Debbie Hersman to make the case that restricting automakers in vehicle technology will prompt drivers to use their cellphones behind the wheel.

 

Bainwol argues the NHTSA guidelines will encourage drivers not to "look down, not up" and not to pair phones with their vehicles.

NHTSA should encourage policies by automakers "that motivate drivers to connect mobile devices to integrated in-vehicle systems," the alliance's presentation said. "Many of these apps will originate outside of the U.S. and may not operate consistently with safe driving."

Automakers note that after-market devices are for sale that let vehicle owners "unlock" navigation interfaces -- to use rear cameras, telephone dialing and address navigation inputs -- and defeat automaker restrictions.

Efforts to ban nearly all cellphone use by drivers hasn't made progress. The National Transportation Safety Board wants to ban drivers from making hand-held and hands-free phone calls from behind the wheel. The NTSB recommendation made in December 2011 wouldn't bar calls made directly through a vehicle, such as General Motors Co.'s OnStar. But the NTSB does want to bar calls made through a vehicle and a "paired" hand-held cellphone.

dshepardson@detnews.com

(202) 662-8735

twitter.com/davidshepardson