Motorists driven to take eyes off road

80% of crashes tied to distracted driving


If you're reading this article while cruising down the road, please don't.

According to a research project that trained 100 "candid cameras" on motorists for more than a year, reading while driving increases the risk of a crash or near-crash more than threefold.

That finding was just one detail in a landmark study of driver behavior that determined nearly 80 percent of automobile crashes and 65 percent of close calls involve distracted driving -- ranging from dialing a cell phone to putting on makeup to sleepiness.

The four-year study, released yesterday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, also indicates that drowsiness might be far more prevalent as a cause of accidents than police statistics indicate. According to the study, drowsiness raises the risk of a crash at least fourfold.

The project, billed as the most comprehensive of its kind to date, also provides fodder for both sides of the debate over whether to ban cell phone use by drivers.

The study implicated cell phone use in about 7 percent of accidents. But it found that while the act of talking by phone poses a statistically insignificant risk, the act of dialing while driving raises the danger of an accident or close call by almost three times.

"Dialing was more dangerous but was performed less frequently, whereas talking/listening was less dangerous but performed more frequently," the report said.

Cell phones are far from the only culprit identified in the report. Using cameras mounted in 100 test vehicles lent to drivers in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia, the study assessed the risk of crashes and near-crashes from distractions including eating, drinking, smoking and using electronic devices.

"This kind of research is really exciting because it gets into the mechanics of how we crash," said Mahlon G. "Lon" Anderson, government affairs director for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Auto safety experts have long identified distracted driving as a leading cause of accidents. But the new study suggests that the previous research might have underestimated its toll.

Statistics on crashes in Maryland from 2002-2004 show driver inattention as the leading cause of accidents, citing it as a factor in 43 percent of crashes, said Valerie Burnette Edgar, spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration.

Burnette Edgar noted that the state's figures depend largely on police reports and drivers' statements. She said the new study provides a valuable resource that will help the state to refine its driver education efforts.

"It keeps us from having to preach and gives us tangible examples," she said.

One area in which the study could provide more useful data than police reports is the role of drowsiness in accidents.

Charlie Klauer, a Virginia Tech senior researcher and project manager, said police reports nationally tend to show drowsiness as a factor in 2 percent to 4 percent of accidents.

The camera-based study, which did not depend on drivers' admitting their lapses, showed that sleepiness was a factor in more than 20 percent of accidents, Klauer said.

The voluminous study, which followed 241 drivers as they drove more than 2 million miles, provides a wealth of data that sometimes challenges and sometimes confirms conventional wisdom about human behavior behind the wheel. The cameras recorded 82 crashes -- none fatal -- as well as 761 near-crashes and 8,295 "critical incidents," which roughly translates to driver errors.

Among the findings:

While men are involved in more crashes overall, women were more likely to be in accidents caused by inattention. Other studies have shown that the downfall of male drivers is frequently speed.

Dialing a cell phone is one of the more dangerous things a driver can do, but applying makeup while behind the wheel is even riskier. The study found that dialing drivers had 2.8 times the crash or near-crash risk of fully attentive drivers, while those applying cosmetics were 3.1 times more dangerous than undistracted motorists.

Eating while driving seems marginally more dangerous than merely talking on a cell phone (1.6 to 1 odds vs. 1.3 to 1). Drinking while driving -- presuming the beverage in question isn't alcoholic -- appears to add no risk. But if your soda can goes tumbling, let it go. The most dangerous distraction identified in the study is reaching for a moving object, which increases the odds of a crash or close call almost ninefold.

Smokers -- blamed for everything from stinky clothes to other people's cancer -- can finally breathe easier. The study found no evidence that puffing makes them more dangerous drivers.

Validating the feelings of many who hate bees, the study indicates that one of the most dangerous distractions is an insect in the vehicle. While too rare an event to yield a valid statistical sample, the insect incidents recorded by the cameras put the drivers at six times the risk of unbugged drivers.

The cameras used in the study focused on drivers' eyes, recording each glance that strayed from the road ahead. The research showed that when drivers took their eyes off the road for more than two seconds, their risks of a crash or near-miss increased. Glancing away for less than two seconds seemed to have no hazardous effect.

AAA's Anderson said that while the report might not support calls for a narrow ban on cell phones, it could give impetus in Maryland to calls for broader laws such one adopted by the District of Columbia that bans distracted driving.

"This, on top of the strong, growing evidence, does help make the case," he said.

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