Amid search for clues in limo crash, experts warn of distracted driving

Although what exactly happened to cause the limo crash in Schoharie, New York, that killed 20 remains unclear and under investigation, the shockingly deadly accident is spurring concerns about the risks of motorists being distracted while behind the wheel, especially by technology. 

No one has suggested yet that distracted driving -- at least from cellphone use -- contributed to this incident, but the proliferation of mobile communications may be a particular risk for those who drive for a living, data show.

"Car accidents increase 12.3 percent with the rise of the always-connected mobile workforce," according to a study in a 2018 Distracted Driving Report done by Boston-based Motus, which provides companies with vehicle management systems and a payment system for the drivers who work for them.

Motus defines the "mobile workforce" as those whose job it is to drive, including drivers who use their own cars, as well as taxi, truck and limo operators who drive for companies. The growth of this work force, along with the increased number of smartphones parallels a "disturbing" rise in accidents from 5.7 million in 2013 to 6.4 million in 2017, said Motus. It estimates that Americans drove 107 billion phone-distracted miles last year.

Motus analyst Ken Robinson didn't want to speculate on the cause of the tragedy, which happened just a few miles outside of Albany, saying it was "too soon." The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a full investigation into the worst U.S traffic accident since 2009, but the intersection the limo hurtled through is known to locals as a particularly dangerous one that has been the scene of previous accidents.

Details remain scant, but the 17 passengers seated in the limo may not have been wearing seat-belts, which aren't required in many states. In addition, the driver wasn't properly licensed, and the limo failed a state safety inspection just last month and shouldn't have been on the road, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

Also contributing to the severity of the crash could have been the "stretch" limo's design and construction. These vehicles are often modified after their original manufacture, but the changes don't have to be reported in data submitted to the federal government, according to AAA, a national organization of auto clubs. "Some safety advocates argue that the modifications can decrease the safety of the vehicle," said AAA spokesperson Tamra Johnson.

Still, the crash has eerily similar aspects of other distracted-driver accidents. The intersection where it happened is located at the juncture of two major state roads marked only by a stop sign at the bottom of a steep hill, which would be easy to miss -- particularly if the driver was using a smartphone. 

Recent accidents on roads, railroads and even subways have been related to drivers and engineers being distracted by texts and emails on their cell phones, often due to messages received from or sent to their companies. Uber or Lyft drivers, as well as those who deliver food orders, drive "800 phone-distracted miles every year," according to Motus.

Even if mobile drivers may not inherently be more dangerous behind the wheel while using a smartphone, they drive a lot more: They spend 49 percent more time behind the wheel than the average employee who doesn't drive a car for work. Mobile workforce phone use while driving is highest between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., Motus said. The Schoharie accident happened just before 2 p.m.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.