Accidents caused by distracted driving undercounted

A lot of folks have been there. You’re driving down the road and hear your phone ring or beep to indicate a new message has arrived.

The law says you can’t pick it up, but many people do.

Just how dangerous is distracted driving, and how many accidents is it causing every year?

Always Investigating found out cellular phones may be leading to far more accidents than is being recorded or disclosed.

Terrence Iwamoto told us about his run-in with a distracted driver on the H-1 Freeway.

“I’m stuck in my lane and I just happened to look in my rearview mirror. I notice there’s a woman in the car behind that’s looking down, she’s not looking straight forward,” he recalled. “I couldn’t do much, because I’m stuck in my lane on the freeway. All I had to do was just brace or hope the woman would start looking up.”

Instead she slammed into the back of his car.

Two surgeries later, “thankfully it got better from there. Now I have more movement,” Iwamoto said. “I’m grateful that I’m alive. Lately I observe what everyone is doing and I swear probably over 50 percent of the time, I’m seeing people using their phone, holding their handset or texting, and I don’t understand why.”

Police are catching a lot of them in the act. Always Investigating counted tens of thousands of tickets handed out since the counties and eventually state adopted hands-free laws.

Then we dug into serious accident data. Only one fatal crash in three years blamed the death on a cellular phone. The state won’t say which crash it was, months after an open records filing.

KHON2 covered another cellular-related fatality on Maui last year, and the Department of Transportation is still waiting on police data from 2012 to present.

As for accidents with injuries or lots of damage, Hawaii’s distracted accident rate–which includes cellular phones–is just six percent, far below the national average of 17 percent. Out of thousands of serious crashes, only a few dozen a year–fewer than one percent–cite cellular use as the leading cause.

cellphone graphic still

“What happens is because nobody is reporting it or admitting it to the cops, that’s why that’s not showing up in the statistics,” said John Yamane, an attorney with Leavitt Yamane and Soldner, which counts many distracted-driving accident victims among its clients.

“I think the numbers are false,” Iwamoto said. “You think about it, if you were to get into an accident, are you going to say to the police that you were texting? Most people are not going to say that. They’re just going to say, ‘I didn’t see the person.’”

Does the report always show you what happened?

“That’s the problem, because the police report does have a section where they will also note about cellular phone use, but we find that is very underreported,” Yamane said, “because most people are not going to admit to that because they’d be admitting to a traffic violation. So what happens is we have to do further investigation.”

That’s when the truth comes out, as it did for a pedestrian who got hit by a car in a crosswalk.

“The person that hit her denied being liable, said it was her fault,” Yamane said, “then when we subpoenaed the cell phone records, we found out that that person was on a call and had another call waiting.”

Always Investigating asked Honolulu police several times since last year to speak in this story to help spread the word about the dangers of distracted driving. They didn’t want to.

Instead, take the word of those who have seen the worst or lived to tell about it.

“When you get behind the wheel of a car, you’re driving a two-ton vehicle that can cause all kinds of injury and damages to people,” Yamane said.

“It can be deadly,” Iwamoto said. “If it’s not urgent, just wait.”

What room is there to make the consequences–the crash data–more open and accurate? Police said it’s rare that a driver or witness will admit to cellular phone use, but if it’s confessed, it’s in the report.

They also say they can’t just check a driver’s cellular phone for proof without a warrant or an okay from the driver, but they could get a court order for the records.

And while police regularly tell the media after every crash whether speed or alcohol were suspected, or if seatbelts were on, it’s not yet routine for them to cover cell phone distraction on that list.

“There’s been a tremendous push for people to wear their seatbelts, not drive drunk,” Yamane said. “I think we need to emphasize that driving while using a cellular phone can be as distracting as driving drunk.”

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