Five-year-old Moriah Modisette died one Christmas Eve after a distracted driver plowed into the back of her family’s car on a Texas highway, according to police reports.

Garrett Wilhelm, 20 at the time, was accused of video chatting on his smartphone when traffic ahead of him slowed. The police say he didn’t notice and slammed into the Modisettes’ car at full speed. The force of the collision caused the car to spin, coming to rest facing the wrong direction in traffic.

The little girl was airlifted to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead, says the police report of the 2014 incident. Her older sister, Isabella, 8, who was sitting next to her in the backseat, survived, as did her mother, Bethany, who was in the front passenger seat of the Toyota Camry. Moriah’s father, James, in the driver’s seat, was knocked unconscious and spared seeing the events that led to his daughter’s death.

Wilhelm has a manslaughter charge pending against him because of the crash, in which his Toyota 4Runner landed in the highway median. A police officer found the video call still running on Wilhelm’s iPhone.

The Modisettes didn’t want to be interviewed for this article, but Greg Love, a lawyer for the family, spoke with CR. “Bethany and Moriah’s older sister, Isabella, were conscious and perceived everything that happened inside that car,” he said. Love also pointed out that at the time of the accident, there was no state ban in Texas on texting while driving. In May 2017 the first statewide distracted-driving law in the state was passed, and it took effect in September. It prohibits all texting and “electronic messaging” while driving.

Dangerous Choices

The latest statistics show that America’s traffic deaths are rising. There are many reasons, including the fact that we’re driving more miles. But some experts say that the marriage of automobiles and smartphones (with their growing menu of apps) is contributing to the danger, even for pedestrians and cyclists. Despite a decade of new laws and enforcement, and a flurry of public-safety campaigns, surveys have found that drivers still make the dangerous choice to text and drive or use their smartphones in other distracting ways.

Indeed, a nationally representative survey by Consumer Reports in October 2017 found that 41 percent of drivers with smartphones said they had used their hands to text while driving, and 8 percent admitted to watching a video on their phone while driving.

More on Car Safety

The Modisettes sued Apple, accusing the company of being at fault because it hadn’t sufficiently warned people not to use its FaceTime app while driving. (The app allows video-to-video communication with another person also on an Apple smart device.) A judge threw out the case in May, ruling that the user of a smartphone is responsible for unsafe behavior, not the manufacturer. The case is on appeal.

Traffic fatalities on U.S. roads in 2016 increased to 37,461, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That’s a 5.6 percent increase over 2015, after an 8.4 percent increase in 2014.

In 2016, 3,450 people were killed because of distracted driving, a 2.2 percent decline from 2015. Still, the number of distraction-related fatalities reported in 2016 was higher than in 2011. According to NHTSA, fatal distracted-driving crashes specifically involving cell-phone use increased to 14 percent (442) in 2015 from 12 percent (354) in 2011. And the percentage of distracted-driving-related crashes resulting in injuries that were linked to cell phones increased to 8 percent (21,000) in 2015 from 6 percent (15,000) in 2011. (A breakdown from NHTSA for 2016 isn’t available yet.) Even these numbers don’t fully reflect the potential scope of danger, safety advocates and the police say, because of the limits of law enforcement and the lack of adequate evidence proving that smartphone use or other distractions were the root cause of some crashes.

Distracted driving has also involved in-car infotainment systems and lower-tech driver activity, such as adjusting a radio or temperature control, talking to a passenger, or taking eyes off the road for any reason.

The automotive and tech industries are using technology designed to mitigate distracted-driving dangers. Many new vehicles have advanced safety features (often optional) such as automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist, which are recognized for their potential to help protect drivers and passengers.

Major smartphone manufacturers, wireless providers, and smaller tech companies have created various apps and services to prevent teens and adults from using smartphones while driving. But at the moment, the adoption and use of them rely largely on users choosing to opt in.

And until cars become fully autonomous, dangers will persist from those who choose to use smartphones while driving or become distracted by onboard infotainment systems.

“Unfortunately, in the short term, we actually could see greater risks because we will have a mix of autonomous, semi-autonomous, and manually driven cars,” says Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “The transition is going to be a little bit of a messy middle.”

The Rise of Connected Cars

General Motors first introduced its OnStar in-car connectivity in 1996. And the company claims it became the first automaker to introduce 4G LTE wireless across its entire retail platform in 2014. Since then, Chevrolet has sold nearly 2.5 million 4G OnStar LTE-connected vehicles.

These cellular connections power onboard WiFi hot spots that can be used by up to seven digital devices in a single vehicle.

Carmakers are adding high-speed internet connections and designing more sophisticated interfaces to serve customer demand for constant connectivity. But they’re also working closely with Silicon Valley to integrate smartphones more deeply into the driving experience. Almost every automaker is now building Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support into new vehicles. These systems serve up a simplified smartphone-style interface on a dashboard screen, giving drivers the apps, controls, and voice assistants they’re already familiar with.

Automakers say they’re doing their best to balance the desire for technology with safe design. A Ford spokeswoman said in an email response to questions that it has “prioritized voice recognition as the interface for smartphone control while driving,” because research “indicates that helping drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road is the most important factor in minimizing distractions.”

A Toyota spokesman said in an email that customers want the company to “evolve and keep up with the latest” technology. He added that Toyota considers driver distraction during product development: “As part of our basic design processes, Toyota considers how all the systems we integrate into our vehicles will be used in the driving environment, with the goals of helping to optimize interactions with the driver while avoiding distractions.”

At GM, as each infotainment feature is developed, engineers test and measure driver attention using a simulator, says Mike Hichme, the company’s executive director of user experience. “We measure their eye movements,” he explains. “They can’t have glances of longer than 2 seconds away from the road for any one task.”

If the test shows that a driver is confused by touch-screen controls or voice commands, the function is locked out after a certain period. Streaming video, game apps, web browsing, and social media messaging are prohibited on the touch screen, Hichme says.

Distracted driving victims
Photo: Left: Modisette Family Right: Mitchel Kiefer Foundation

The Human Toll

In September 2016, Mitchel Kiefer, an 18-year-old freshman at Michigan State University, died on a highway after an inattentive driver slammed into his car when traffic slowed. According to the police reports, the force of the collision pushed Kiefer’s vehicle across a median and into oncoming traffic. His was the only fatality in the multivehicle wreck.

Twenty-one-year-old Kelley Renee Lange of Kalamazoo eventually pleaded guilty to a moving violation, receiving probation, community service, and a fine. According to an Ingham County assistant prosecutor, information from the event data recorder, or black box, in Lange’s 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix indicated she was traveling at 81 mph with the accelerator depressed at impact. The prosecutor says the data suggested Lange may have been distracted. But because there was no evidence of her texting or using her phone at the time of the incident, prosecutors didn’t have probable cause to secure a search warrant for her phone. It’s unclear why she failed to slow down. Her lawyer didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

It can be difficult to assess the true impact of driver distraction. Black-box data can provide clues, but it’s rare for a witness or law-enforcement officer to directly see what’s going on inside a vehicle. Even when there’s evidence of distraction, it’s not always documented. In a 2017 report, “Undercounted Is Underinvested: How Incomplete Crash Reports Impact Efforts to Save Lives,” the National Safety Council found that many state crash-report forms don’t have a field or code for many forms of distraction.

Kiefer’s parents, Steve and Paula, his two sisters, and his brother decided to establish the Mitchel Kiefer Foundation, which is dedicated to battling driver distraction. The family works to get out the message that no one should text and drive or look away from the road for too long.

“What I’ve always said to the kids is that you can let a tragic event in your life basically destroy your life or you can use it to repurpose your life,” Steve Kiefer says in a video. “We’ve all agreed we’re going to try and use it to repurpose our lives and make something good of it, and hopefully save some other lives.”

Kiefer speaks to groups about his son and the dangers of distraction. It helps that he’s a senior vice president at General Motors, which lends credibility to the foundation’s mission.

High-Tech Solutions

Some in the telecommunications industry have been addressing the issue of driver distraction. A range of small tech companies offer apps that can block text messages, email, social media sites, and even phone calls while drivers are underway.

Joe Breaux, chief technology officer of CellControl, which offers a combination of hardware and software that can block and monitor smartphone use inside a car, says his company follows the development guidelines of major smartphone manufacturers. “In many ways, they’re partners, but what they’re providing is different from what we’re providing,” he explains. “They are providing connectivity. The last thing they want to do is limit the use of their products or services.”

Major wireless providers such as AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon also offer apps that can block text messages. This type of technology is often aimed at parents of teen drivers and employers.

Smartphone manufacturers are also using technology to address the problem. Samsung has an app called In-Traffic Reply that sends preset responses to messages received while the user is in motion. Apple’s new iOS 11 system, introduced last fall, includes an optional Do Not Disturb While Driving feature that mutes incoming phone calls and text messages. There’s an option to automatically send a message that you’re driving and will respond later.

But none of this technology can stop a driver who doesn’t want to use it. “All these systems are voluntary,” says David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Conn., and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. “Ultimately, if it’s voluntary it’s not going to be useful. I want the phone completely disabled. I don’t trust myself to not use it, and nobody else should either.”

Greenfield stresses that smartphones can be habit-forming. “The addictive nature of the phone does not stop when we enter the vehicle,” he says. “The more complex cars have become, the greater the distraction becomes.”

In July 2017 Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York directed his Traffic Safety Committee to examine the viability of the “textalyzer,” technology that can determine whether a cell phone was used right before a crash.

In 2012 NHTSA started rolling out its recommended guidelines aimed at reducing driver distraction. The first phase offered guidelines for automakers to design infotainment systems that minimize distraction, such as limiting the time a driver has to look away from the road.

The next phase, introduced in 2016, encouraged smartphone manufacturers to design features such as pairing and driver mode that can link phones to a vehicle’s infotainment system. NHTSA’s next phase is to address voice-activated controls and potential ways to reduce cognitive distraction, when a driver’s mind is distracted from focusing on the road.

Some people hope that fully autonomous vehicles will solve the problem one day. But 3,400 people dying every year from distracted driving is too high a price to wait for better technology.

Who’s Responsible?

Several product liability lawsuits aimed at Apple have resulted in rulings that the company wasn’t to blame for unsafe driver behavior. At least two focused on Apple’s patent for technology that can “lock out” or prevent the operation of smartphone functions while the user is driving. In one complaint, the family of three crash victims claimed that Apple’s failure to develop the lockout idea was proof the company ignored the dangers of distracted driving and was liable.

According to that lawsuit, Ashley Kubiak was heading down a Texas highway in a Dodge Ram pickup as she allegedly checked messages on her iPhone. She rear-ended a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe, forcing it across the lane, where it was struck by a Ford F-250 pickup traveling in the opposite direction. The lawsuit said the accident killed the Tahoe driver and a passenger, and left a young child paralyzed. The court papers went on to say that Kubiak was convicted of criminally negligent homicide.

In August, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Schroeder III dismissed the case. The decisive passage from his ruling read: “When a driver negligently operates her vehicle because she is engaging in compulsive or addictive behaviors such as eating food, drinking alcohol, or smoking tobacco, it is the driver’s negligence in engaging in those activities that causes any resulting injuries, not the cook’s, distiller’s, or tobacconist’s supposed negligence in making their products so enticing.”

In another case, Julio Ceja of Costa Mesa, Calif., filed a class-action complaint in California. Like the Texas case, it focused on Apple’s failure to install a lockout device. When asked about the case, an Apple spokesman told CR: “We discourage anyone from allowing their iPhone to distract them by typing, reading, or interacting with the display while driving.”

Facing the Human Factor

Hands-free phone operation is often touted by policymakers and others as the best available solution. Voice-activated infotainment, navigation, and other features are also widely available in later model vehicles.

Joel Feldman, a Philadelphia attorney whose 21-year-old daughter Casey was killed by a distracted driver in 2009, says he prefers that no one use a phone while driving. “But if I could snap my fingers today and compel that the only thing we could do with a phone in a car is talk hands-free, I’d take it in a second,” he told CR. “I think about the people in these companies. Do they really want their children to use these products in this way?”

Still, David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, has researched hands-free systems and found they can be as dangerous as handheld smartphones because the brain can still be distracted from driving. He also says that some infotainment systems are more distracting than others, and supports clear regulatory guidelines.

“Texting and social media access are migrating to the car,” Strayer says. “In some cases, in-vehicle systems are locking out social media for drivers and in others it is not. It’s all over the map.”

New laws, stepped-up enforcement, safety campaigns, and special apps might be making a gradual difference. But many safety advocates, including David Friedman of Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, think that progress has been mixed.

“Everyone needs to shift into a higher gear on the issue of driver distraction,” Friedman says. “The Transportation Department should finalize distraction guidelines for devices such as smartphones, and the tech industry should support the DOT’s efforts. Automakers and the government should accelerate the rollout of effective driver-monitoring systems of other technologies that can help ensure that drivers pay attention to the road.”

Survey: How Distracted Are We?

Distracted driving is dangerous in traffic

Consumer Reports conducted a nationally representative phone survey to assess distracted-driver behavior and opinions about texting while driving. In the survey of 622 licensed drivers who own a smartphone, 52 percent admitted to engaging in distracting activities while driving.

What Are the Distractions?
41% use hands to send a text.
37% use hands to play music on a smartphone.
20% use hands to access a web browser or to compose, send, or read email.
8% watch videos on their phone while driving.

Who’s the Most Distracted?
Men are more likely than women to engage in distracting behavior; more than twice as many men watched a video. Millennials (18 to 36) and Gen Xers (37 to 52) were more likely than baby boomers to engage in distracting behavior.

When Is Texting Acceptable?
61% say only if they have a hands-free, voice-activated option.
34% say if it’s an emergency.
24% say never.

Should Texting Be Prohibited?
88% say they favor states having restrictions on texting while driving.

Of those:
83% support a “total ban on texting while driving.”
66% support a “requirement that all drivers use a message that automatically responds to incoming calls or texts.”
36% support a “ban on texting while driving only for novice drivers.”
30% support a “ban on incoming texts or calls if a smartphone is present in a moving car.”

Who Should Do the Restricting?
100% support restrictions.
94% say the driver.
50% say the government.

How to Protect Yourself

Smart phones can be distracting

Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center, offers these tips.

How to Protect Yourself From Yourself
These common-sense habits should become as automatic as putting on your seat belt:
• Once in your car, put your phone out of sight and out of reach so you’re not tempted to use it. If you need to use a navigation app, use a dash mount so you don’t have to take your hands off the steering wheel.
• Take advantage of the in-car system if you have one. Most new cars offer voice commands for paired phones as well as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay interfaces that resemble your phone’s screen.
• Drop the earbuds. Some drivers use them to answer calls in cars that lack Bluetooth or for listening to music. That’s not safe.
• If you must regularly answer phone calls, invest in an aftermarket Bluetooth system. You can stay hands-free and keep your ears open. There are many options on Amazon.

How to Protect Yourself From Others
Watch for erratic or inappropriate driving, and give those cars a wide berth. That includes:
• A car that’s veering from edge to edge inside a lane.
• A car that’s missing traffic cues, such as failing to accelerate when a light turns green, slows and speeds up in lane without logic, or rides the brakes.
• A driver whose head is facing down toward his lap or the seat.

Is There a Law for That?

Police car light

Many states have texting bans and other laws to combat distracted driving.

Text messaging: Forty-seven states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban texting behind the wheel, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Of the three states without a complete driver ban, two prohibit texting by inexperienced drivers. Montana is the only state without any ban on the books, the GHSA reports.

Handheld cell-phone use: Fifteen states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban handheld mobile phone use while driving. No state bans all cell-phone use for all drivers, but 38 states and Washington, D.C., ban cell-phone use by inexperienced drivers, and 20 states and D.C. prohibit it for school bus drivers, according to a GHSA analysis.

Does enforcement make a difference? The police conducted high-visibility enforcement campaigns in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., in 2010 and 2011. These efforts were paid for, in part, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The police in Syracuse used roving patrols to spot offenders, and Hartford police used a spotter technique with two patrol cars working together. The percentage of drivers observed to be texting or dialing in Hartford fell to 1.1 percent from 3.9 percent in a little more than a year. Drivers cited for texting tended to commit other violations, such as drifting across lanes or weaving, as a result of their distraction.

But the final report concluded that motorists were willing to continue texting while driving even while agreeing in surveys that the police should enforce texting restrictions.

“The laws have been successful in getting some drivers to put down their phones or switch to hands-free, but we haven’t been able to find a corresponding effect in reduced crashes,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

An unintended consequence, says David Strayer, a University of Utah professor who studies distracted driving, is that “instead of holding the phone, drivers now place it in their lap or on a seat where it can’t be seen.”

Protections We Want for You

Crosswalk distracted driving

Driver distraction takes more than 3,400 lives a year on U.S. roads—and requires urgent action. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began rolling out driver-distraction guidelines in 2012. Consumer Reports believes industry and government should implement and build on these guidelines. Here’s what that means:

Automakers Should . . . 
• Not include features that encourage drivers to take their eyes off the road for any significant amount of time.
• Design built-in systems that disable distracting content from infotainment systems when a vehicle is in motion.
• Ensure that “pairing” capabilities are easy to use.
• Implement effective driver monitoring to warn drivers when they’re not paying attention.
• Make safety features that mitigate crashes standard in every new car.

Tech Companies Should . . .
• Incorporate easy-to-use pairing capabilities and driver mode, a simplified interface, into devices.
• Disable normal use of a phone while a vehicle is in motion.

Policymakers Should . . .
• Update and finalize existing guidelines based on the most recent research and technology, and set new guidelines to address “cognitive” distraction (when a driver’s mind is distracted from driving).
• Warn the public when apps pose special distraction risks.
• Put in place strong standards to accelerate the adoption of proven active safety features, which could save lives in all crashes.

Using a Cellphone in the Car

The best bet is to not use your phone when operating a car—but smartphone navigation and Bluetooth is a common feature nowadays. On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, CR expert Jen Stockburger shows host Jack Rico and friends how to stay safe while on the road.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.