Distracted Drivers Cause Motor Vehicle Accidents
Studies Show Distracted Drivers Are A Leading Cause of Motor Vehicle Accidents
Whenever you're driving a vehicle and your attention is not on the road, you're putting yourself, your passengers, other vehicles, and pedestrians in danger.
Cell phones have gotten a lot of negative media attention recently -- but other more low-tech distractions cause most traffic accidents. Have you ever spilled hot coffee on yourself? Dropped something on the floor while driving? These are two of the distractions drivers cited most frequently as reasons for their road traffic accidents, according to a recent study done by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS). Fiddling with a radio or climate control system is the next most-cited distraction. Believe it or not, some commuters regularly read the newspaper, shave, or apply make-up on their way to work. The fact that most of them are operating a motor vehicle at the same time doesn't seem to concern them. NETS suggests that you allow plenty of travel time, preset your climate control and radio, and put all reading material in your trunk.
A late 1970s Indiana University study of "Precrash factors involved in traffic accidents" identified driver inattention as the leading cause of automobile accidents. On a recent CNN "Talkback Live" program that dealt with driver distraction, (transcript is here) Mark Edwards, Director of Traffic Safety at the American Automobile Association stated, "The research tells us that somewhere between 25-50 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in this country really have driver distraction as their root cause." Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver magazine continued," I don't think we're being misled, but I think we need to keep these statistics in context. When we talk about 20-50 percent of accidents being caused by driver distractions, that isn't quite what the study said. And that study said they're factors." He continues "... safety experts tell us that half the accidents are caused by drunk driving, 70 percent are caused by aggressive drivers, 30 percent are caused by speeding. All of a sudden, you know, we've got more causes than accidents, and it's very, very difficult to decide exactly what the causes are." Csere offered the following advice "...the most important safety factor is a competent driver paying attention to the task behind the wheel. Unfortunately, we're always going to be distracted by certain things, and the key is picking your spots. Don't try to dial your cell phone when you're on an icy road. Don't tune the radio when you're negotiating traffic in a complicated intersection."
Stressful or heated conversation can lead to driver distraction just as easily as a cell-phone call -- and combining the two is a formula for disaster. Talking on the phone has become a way of life for millions of auto-bound Americans. More than 85 percent of the 100 million cell-phone subscribers regularly talk on the phone while driving, says a survey by Prevention magazine. A 1997 study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that drivers who talk on a cell phone are four times more likely to be in an accident than drivers who don't. Drivers throughout the country report seeing distracted drivers talking on cell phones as they drift into other lanes or run through red lights or stop signs. In some cases, the results have been fatal. Newer phones address some of these problems. Recent developments in cell phone technology include voice-activated dialing, built-in phones, headsets, and speaker phones; all can help drivers concentrate on the roadway.
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association has created some cell phone safety tips. You may be surprised to see some infractions that you regularly commit.
- Get to know your wireless phone's features such as speed dial and redial.
- When available, use a hands-free device, such as an earpiece or a phone cradle.
- Position your cell phone within easy reach.
- Let the person you are speaking with know you are driving. If necessary, suspend the call in heavy traffic or hazardous weather conditions.
- Do not take notes or look up phone numbers while driving.
- Dial sensibly and assess the traffic. If possible, place calls when you are not moving or before pulling into traffic.
- Do not engage in stressful or emotional conversations that may divert your attention from the road.
- Dial 911 to report serious emergencies only. It is a free call from all cell phones.
- Keep conversations short and sweet. Develop ways to get free of long-winded friends and associates while on the road. Don't use the cell phone for social visiting while you drive.
- Hang up in tricky traffic situations-- without warning if necessary. You can explain later-- because you'll still be alive!
Since 1995, 40 states have proposed bills concerning cellular phone use in cars, but the $40-billion-a-year cell-phone industry has successfully lobbied to keep those laws off the books. The industry claims that not only are cellular phones safe to use while driving, the phones help drivers by allowing them to quickly report emergencies such as accidents, and car jackings.
There's a whole different set of problems comes from the new in-car navigation systems. They're all the rage, but if you're not used to them they're an additional distraction. Built-in GPS (Global Positioning System) computers require you to go through multiple screens or voice commands to program your destination. Computer voices tell you to "turn left now,” or “turn around as soon as possible,” when your driving strays from the recommended route of travel. Users report that the "computer" voice soon becomes annoying, like a back seat driver. The problem arises when you mute the voice and rely solely on the screen and buttons. If you're driving by yourself, chances are excellent that you’ll end up rear-ending someone in traffic. The owners' manuals all state that navigation systems should be operated only by a passenger, or while a lone driver is stopped at the side of the road. We find, though, that these recommendations are usually ignored.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just opened the 60-million-dollar National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) at the University of Iowa. The NADS will test the distraction levels of drivers confronted with in-car electronic devices such as computers, navigation systems, and cellular phones. The unit will also be used for studying aggressive driving, driver fatigue, headlight glare, and the effects of prescription drugs and alcohol.
NHTSA has advised Americans not to use cell phones or other high-tech gizmos while behind the wheel, and Smart Motorist agrees with them. Don’t try to change lanes on the freeway while you’re putting sugar in your coffee or hunting for a radio station, and don’t argue with your spouse or kids as you dodge through rush-hour traffic. Aggressive driving combined with a distracted driver can quickly escalate into a lethal situation.
The figure below illustrates the distribution of causal factors related to driver inattention found in a 1989 North Carolina study (Wierwille, W. W. & Tijerina, L. 1995). An analysis of driving accident narratives as a means of determining problems caused by in-vehicle visual allocation and visual workload. The element "interaction with another person or animal in vehicle" when broken down further indicates that the specific acts of talking, listening, and arguing account for about 38 percent of the 210 incidents reported in the data. A component of this may involve the act of turning towards and looking at the passenger, a behavior not characteristic of cellular telephone conversation. Hand-held cellular telephones nevertheless sometimes require the driver to change position in order to achieve better reception of the signal and ensure the connection is not lost. Thus, it would appear that the analogy between the two activities is not that straightforward.
This analysis also serves to highlight the potential risks associated with in-vehicle conversation of any kind, if pursued at inopportune times. Thus, development of means to address or mitigate the distraction potential of cellular telephone conversation, at least, appears worthwhile. (Please note: cellular phone use was almost non-existant in 1989, the year the data was collected. Everyone agrees that the actual numbers of distractions attributed to cell phones today would be exponentially larger.)