WASHINGTON – The number of people killed in crashes connected to driver distraction declined last year but the government said the problem remains an epidemic for motorists in the U.S.
The Transportation Department said Monday that 5,474 people were killed in 2009 in crashes reported to have involved distracted driving, a 6 percent decline from the 5,838 people killed in 2008.
Distraction-related deaths accounted for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2009, the same percentage as in 2008. The latest data came as the overall number of highway deaths dropped last year to its lowest level since 1950.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the problem of drivers failing to keep their eyes on the road — often because of mobile devices, cell phones or other forms of distraction — remained an epidemic.
LaHood said the data could be the "tip of the iceberg" because many police reports don't document whether distraction was a factor in vehicle crashes, making it difficult to know the full scope of the problem.
LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, is kicking off a second national summit on distracted driving on Tuesday. He has pushed states to adopt tougher laws against sending text messages from behind the wheel and other forms of distractions.
The Transportation Department report issued Monday said 448,000 people were injured in crashes reported to have involved driver distractions in 2009. An estimated 466,000 people were injured under those circumstances in 2008.
Sixteen percent of all drivers under age 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving. Drivers in that age group were the highest proportion of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes compared to people of other ages.
The Obama administration has prohibited federal employees from texting while driving on government business and banned commercial truck and bus drivers from texting behind the wheel.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from texting behind the wheel; at least eight states have passed laws barring drivers from using hand-held cell phones.
Legislation is pending in Congress to push all states to ban texting by drivers.