Deaths from distracted driving are on the rise. And a new study says that they're rising because of increased texting and other visual phone applications. Many of the dead were male drivers, driving alone in urban areas, who collided with roadside obstructions.

There are now 30 states with laws forbidding texting while driving. But enforcement lags far behind.

Everyone has heard of the dangers of driving while using a cell phone. But this study found that deaths due to distracted driving actually fell between 1999 and 2005. Then they started going up again, rising from 4,572 in 2005 to 5,870 in 2008. The study researchers attribute this rise to an increase in texting. Their statistical analysis suggests that increased texting caused 16,000 road deaths from 2001 to 2007. And nationwide, texting continues to increase.

The researchers used 1999-2008 records from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which records data on all road fatalities that occur on U.S. public roads. They also used information from the Federal Communications Commission on cell phone ownership and text message volume.

They estimate that distracted driving was responsible for 15.8% of all road fatalities in 2008.

The study was conducted by Fernando Wilson and Jim Stimpson of the University of North Texas Health Science Center. What made the strongest impression on them was the massive increase in texting over the last decade. In a telephone interview with Medline, Wilson said: "Since roughly 2001-2002, texting volumes have increased by several hundred percent. In 2002, 1 million texts were sent every month; this rose to 110 million in 2008."

Many of these texts were sent while driving.

Talking on a cell phone makes for distracted driving. Not only is this obvious, it's also been demonstrated in several studies. But texting is much worse, because it requires people to take their eyes off the road to read or type the message. That's a recipe for disaster. And with cell phones and other electronic devices now sending and receiving e-mail and seemingly offering new applications weekly, there are ever new ways to become distracted.

Wilson and Stimpson estimate that for every 1 million new cell phone subscribers, deaths due to distracted driving rise by 19%.

There are now 30 states with laws forbidding texting while driving. But enforcement lags far behind.

Sure, people want their cell phones and their apps. But how many text messages are so important that people can't wait until they pull off the road to send or read them? There may be a select few people who are expert at re-focusing their attention: they can usually switch from reading a text message to spotting the hazards of the road quickly enough to be safe. But usually isn't good enough when it comes to driving. All it takes is one mistake and there'll be no more apps. Ever.

An advance version of an article detailing the study was published online by the American Journal of Public Health on September 23, 2010. The article will appear in a future issue of the journal.