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Published: Mar 20, 2017 4 min read
Emergency personnel investigate the scene of a 10-vehicle accident, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 in York, Maine. The accident happened when a dump truck filled with dirt tipped onto its side, demolishing a number of cars and sending multiple people to the hospital.
A teenage driver distracted by a cellphone was blamed for a 10-vehicle accident last October in York, Maine.
AJ St. Hilaire—Portsmouth Herald/AP

Last fall, a 17-year-old driver in Maine caused a 10-vehicle accident when she drove through a red light. According to police, the teen driver never noticed the light was red because—you guessed it—she was looking at her cellphone.

Luckily no one died in that accident. But the incident is part of a larger epidemic that is most certainly killing people on America's roads. Even as cars themselves are becoming safer thanks to better technology and design, the rise of smartphones has been correlated to higher rates of road accidents and traffic fatalities, insurance experts say. Last year 40,200 people died in traffic accidents, an increase of 14% over 2014.

Now auto insurers are jacking up premiums on drivers in response to the increase in collisions.

More accidents equate to higher costs for insurance companies, and insurers pass along these costs to customers. The Boston Globe reports that insurers plan on increasing auto premiums 3% to 6% on Massachusetts drivers this year, on top of increases of 6% to 9% in 2016. Insurers in North Carolina, meanwhile, have requested auto premium hikes averaging 13.8%, according to the Charlotte Observer. Drivers in neighboring South Carolina saw their auto insurance rates increase an average of 8.9% last year.

The increase smartphone usage behind the wheel is a significant reason behind the rising rates. “I would characterize distracted driving as a big factor,” Massachusetts Division of Insurance spokesman Chris Goetcheus told the Globe. “It’s resulting in more accidents out on the road.”

“Distracted driving was always there, but it just intensified as more applications for the smartphones became available,” said Bill Caldwell, executive vice president of property and casualty at Horace Mann Insurance, to the Wall Street Journal recently. The insurer plans on hiking auto insurance premiums an average of 8% this year on top of a 6.5% hike last year.

Young people appear to be disproportionately responsible for fatal road crashes involving a distracted driver—i.e. someone who might have been texting, scrolling through Snapchat messages, or using a navigation system. "Young drivers (age 16 to 24) have been observed manipulating electronic devices at higher rates than older drivers," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports, noting that 10% of drivers ages 15 to 19 involved in fatal crashes were distracted behind the wheel.

To be sure, distracted driving isn't the only reason rates are rising. The combination of cheap gas and an improving economy has resulted in more cars on the road, and more congestion is directly correlated to more accidents. What's more, the aftermath of the average accident has grown increasingly more expensive as well. Modern cars are packed with more high-tech features than their predecessors, so it costs more to repair them. In the past, it was “just fixing a bumper,” Allstate spokesperson Adam Polack explained to the Charlotte Observer. “Now it has a backup camera in it. So cars are more expensive to fix.”

Traffic accidents tend to involve lawsuits and medical bills as well, and since legal fees and health care costs have been rising faster than inflation, they too are pushing auto insurance rates skyward.

But if people paid attention to the road rather than their phones while driving, there would be fewer crashes—and fewer costs that insurers must cover.