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Smartphone Apps May Be Cause of Spike in Traffic Deaths

Contrary to what you might think, texting may not be the most deadly distraction for drivers -- or at least not the most widespread one. Smartphone apps now let you dictate messages, ask for directions and even hear the texts you receive, sometimes even without you taking your hands off the wheel. Yet the resulting distraction could be behind an alarming spike in traffic deaths.

Credit: Facebook

(Image credit: Facebook)

Following a dramatic decline over the past 35 years, the number of traffic deaths in the first half of this year in the United States jumped by more than 10 percent, to 17,775, from the same time period a year earlier, according to The New York Times.

"This is a crisis that needs to be addressed now," Mark R. Rosekind, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The Times.

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Snapchat was under fire recently for encouraging drivers to post photos showing how fast they're driving, when last month, a distracted teenaged Snapchat user in Tampa killed five people. Pokemon Go players have been distracted by searching for characters on the road while driving. The Waze mapping app rewards drivers with points for reporting traffic conditions, The Times noted.

Most of those apps require the user to touch the phone's screen. As any good driver knows, taking your eyes off the road for even a second can be dangerous. That's why Google's Android Auto, Apple's CarPlay, Ford's Sync and a ton of other systems can keep you from looking down at your phone when you're driving. Facebook has announced that its Messenger app can be integrated into Android Auto as long as you have the messenger app installed on your smartphone.

But even that doesn't always solve the issue. Even when your hands are on the wheel, your mind may be elsewhere if you're talking on the phone, listening to a text message or email being read aloud or interacting with an app via voice commands.

"It's the cognitive workload on your brain that's the problem," Deborah Hersman, former chairwoman of the U.S. government's National Transportation Safety Board, told The Times.

The solution may be to not let any new apps or car-tech systems lull you into a false sense of security. Even if your car has a system that lets you access all your apps without looking, it can wait, as famed director Werner Herzog says in a heartbreaking short documentary about the dangers of texting and driving.