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Sen. John Rodgers made national news last week when he introduced a bill that would ban cellphones for Vermonters under the age of 21. It’s not a proposal that Rodgers necessarily supports, but it met his goal of starting a conversation about the lengths we are willing to go to protect children.
To drive home his point that the gun control bills are as much a waste of time as his cellphone bill, Rodgers made the claim — on many occasions over the past week — that while people are worrying about the dangers of gun violence in Vermont, they are ignoring something far more dangerous: cellphones.
"Cellphones are far more dangerous than guns are," Rodgers said in an interview with VTDigger last week. "No gun has ever been used to radicalize or recruit terrorists, neo-Nazis or fascists. And the number one killer of teens in the United States is driving while using cellphones."
In emails from his Senate account, Rodgers has doubled down on this point. "Is it a stunt when I have people around the country talking about the number one killer of teens in America," he asked one constituent critical of his cellphone ban proposal.
He wrote to another angry emailer: "So you are not concerned with the number one killer of teens in the country. You clueless f - - k!"
It’s fair to say Rodgers has been falling back on the claim often as he defends himself from cellphone ban blowback. But is he right?
We asked Rodgers where he got his stats. He quickly walked back his original claim.
"I realize that I have framed that poorly in stating several times that the cell phone use it’s self is the cause when in fact it is a major contributor but not responsible for all accidents," Rodgers wrote in an email.
He’s onto something there.
It’s true that the leading cause of teen deaths in the U.S. is motor vehicle accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that per mile driven, drivers aged 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.
In 2015, motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death among "children" 8-15, "youth" 15-20, and "young adults" 21-24, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Suicide was second on the list.
That means that even including teenagers too young to drive, Rodgers’ idea that motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death among teenagers in the United States still holds true. But that’s where the truth in Rodgers’ statement ends.
For Rodgers’ claim to be true, an overwhelming majority of teenage motor vehicle deaths would have to have been caused by cellphone use, so much so that it would still outnumber deaths caused by suicide (which account for roughly 1,000 fewer teen deaths than car crashes per year).
However, texting comes nowhere close to topping the CDC’s list of the leading causes of teen crashes. Driver inexperience takes first place, followed by driving with teen passengers, nighttime driving, and not using seat belts. Distracted driving (the category that texting while driving falls into) came in fifth.
Further calling Rodgers’ claim into doubt, cellphone use isn’t even the leading cause of distracted driving.
The most recent data available shows that in 2017, 271 teenagers died because of distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those fatalities, only 23% — or 63 teen deaths — were caused by cellphones. There were approximately 2,500 deaths by suicide among people aged 15-19, by comparison.
Rodgers claimed that "the number one killer of teens in the United States is driving while using cellphones."
In 2017, the CDC reported 14,103 total teen deaths (ages 10-19). The same year, the NHTSA reported just 63 deaths caused by cellphone use while driving.
That means that just about 0.4% of teen deaths are caused by texting while driving. There are many other causes of car crashes, as well as suicide, that have a far higher death toll.
We rate this claim false.
VTDigger "Final Reading: Youth Lobby delivers climate declaration, Rodgers explains cellphone ban bill" Jan. 11, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Teen Drivers: Get the Facts."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Distracted Driving in Fatal Crashes 2017."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes as a Leading Cause of Death in the United States, 2015."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Mortality Among Teenagers Aged 12-19 Years: United States, 1999-2006."
VTDigger "Senator calls emailer ‘You clueless f - - k!’ in response to cellphone ban blowback," Jan. 14, 2020.
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