How often do cell phones lead to car accidents in Colorado?

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A man talks on a phone in a car at the corner of Federal Boulevard and Florida Avenue, Jan. 16, 2020.

Rachel Stein is a mom of three kids. She drives to work in south Denver every day, and regularly notices dangerous cell phone behavior among her fellow drivers.

“My favorite thing to see is someone holding the cell phone in front of them, but still using their hands as though that's somehow less distracting than holding it to their ear,” she said. 

In Colorado, it’s illegal to text and drive. But it is legal for drivers over the age of 18 to hold a phone while talking. Meanwhile, drivers under the age of 18 are banned from all cell phone use. 

So, that made Stein wonder: How many accidents does cell phone use cause? And how are we trying to prevent more crashes from happening? 

The subject has been top of mind for many Coloradans after the death of 17-year-old rising cycling star Magnus White late last month. White was riding north of Boulder when he was struck from behind by a 23-year-old driver who drifted from her lane. Law enforcement is investigating the cause of the crash as potentially distracted driving. 

What we know about distracted driving in Colorado

The exact number of accidents caused by cell phone use is a little tricky to pin down, however, said Sam Cole, who oversees the state’s distracted driving awareness campaigns for the Colorado Department of Transportation. 

“We really have an epidemic of traffic deaths in Colorado,” Cole said. “And I think distracted driving has a lot to do with that.”

Distracted driving caused at least 72 deaths and over 15,000 crashes in 2022, Cole said. But CDOT’s crash numbers account for all kinds of distracted driving, from cell phone use to eating.

That makes it hard to pin down exactly how many crashes happen because of someone using their phone while behind the wheel. 

Matt Bloom/CPR News
Sam Cole, safety communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, stands in front of a sign in his office.

More than half of drivers in Colorado use their phone while driving, according to a recent CDOT survey of motorists. 

Law enforcement has tried to crack down, but the state patrol said it only issued 138 citations for improper cell phone use in all of 2022. Cole said it can be difficult for officers to enforce the state’s rules.

“I think the number of crashes that involve a distracted driver in this state are very underrepresented,” he said. “If you're driving along and you take your eyes off the road and you hit somebody in front of you, you're not going to perhaps admit to the officer that's what you were doing.” 

Are there solutions for distracted driving?

Ideas for solutions range from law changes to more public messaging about the dangers of distracted driving. 

Some lawmakers have tried to pass a hands-free law in recent years. But they’ve been unsuccessful. 

CDOT is launching a new ad campaign focused on the dangers of texting while driving. The commercials highlight the damage drivers can do while turning their focus away from the road. 

“I think people really underestimate how long it takes to read a text or send a message when they’re driving,” Cole said. 

Drivers going 65 miles per hour can travel the length of a football field in five seconds, which is the average time it takes to read a text. 

“It’s scary,” Cole said. 

Cole’s advice? Just don’t use your phone at all. If you have to make a call, use a hands-free system if your car allows it. If your car doesn’t have one, pull over to make the call or put it on speaker and keep both hands on the wheel. 

“Part of the problem is that people have used their phones hundreds of times [while driving] without a problem, and there's a false sense of security,” Cole said. “But I guarantee you it will catch up with you and you will get into a crash if you're somebody that's always on your phone when you drive.”