WASHINGTON — Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Raffaele’s last words were over a cellphone to a friend: “I’m going to crash!” The car she was driving had clipped a snow bank and spun into oncoming traffic, where it was T-boned by an SUV. She died at a hospital without regaining consciousness.
Police chalked the accident up to mistakes made by a novice driver, unaware that she had been on the phone at the time. Her phone was found later in the back seat, and the possibility that distracted driving might have been a cause is missing from statistics kept by police and the federal agency that compiles crash data.
Crash deaths in cases where drivers were on the phone are seriously underreported, according to a recent analysis of state and federal data by the National Safety Council, an advocacy group. The underreporting makes the problem of distracted driving appear less significant than it actually is, and impedes efforts to win passage of tougher laws, the council says.
The group reviewed 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 in which there was strong evidence that the driver had been using a cellphone, in a study paid for in part by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company.
Of the 2011 crashes, only half were coded in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s accident database as involving cellphone use, the study found. That was still better than previous years: Only 8 percent of the 2009 crashes examined were coded as involving cellphones, and 35 percent in 2010.