Study: Driver distraction leads to crashes


BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) – Distractions for drivers are everywhere these days with the explosion of new technologies.

They talk on their cell phones. Check their e-mail or send text messages. Get directions from their GPS system. Pop a CD into the stereo. Change stations on satellite radio. Help their kids with the backseat DVD player. Along with all the other age-old distractions of eating, drinking, talking and grooming.

Turns out there can be a high cost.

A study released Thursday by the government found that nearly eight of 10 collisions or near-crashes involved a lack of attention from drivers in the moments before impact.

Researchers reviewed thousands of hours of video and data from sensor monitors linked to more than 200 drivers, and pinpointed examples of what keeps drivers from paying close attention to the road.

“We see people on the roadways talking on the phone, checking their stocks, checking scores, fussing with their MP3 players, reading e-mails, all while driving 40, 50, 60, 70 miles per hour and sometimes even faster,” said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of the government’s highway safety agency.

A driver’s reaching for a moving object increased the risk of a crash or potential collision by nine times, according to researchers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

They found that the risk of a crash increases almost threefold when a driver is dialing a cell phone.

Video footage shows four different angles of the driver – the face, a view of the steering wheel and instrument panel, and front and rear views of the vehicle – and offers a look at the moments before a crash:

• A young woman craning her neck to look out the driver’s side window before rear-ending a stopped car. She cups her hand over her mouth in disbelief.

• An out-of-control sedan skidding in front a woman’s car, causing a collision. The air bag deploys and the driver’s hair, tied back behind her ears, flies into her face.

Researchers said the report showed the first links between crash risks and a driver’s activities, from eating and talking to receiving e-mail.

“All of these activities are much more dangerous than we thought before,” said Dr. Charlie Klauer, a senior research associate at the institute. Data from police reports had estimated that driver inattention was a factor in about 25 percent of crashes.

Some safety organizations said the study was part of a growing body of research and worried it might lead to reactionary laws.

“I urge legislators not to interpret these results as a need for new legislative initiatives. It is simply not good public policy to pass laws addressing every type of driver behavior,” said Lt. Col. Jim Champagne, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

For many drivers, the research offered more proof of what they see on their daily commutes.

John Simpson of Christiansburg, Va., said his “personal favorite” is once seeing a woman in traffic “with her knees up on the steering wheel, sheet music in her lap and she was playing the flute.”

But Simpson, a 20-year-old who works for a fire safety business, says multitasking can be a necessity. For example, he must take calls from customers while driving in his Chevy Astro van.

For more than a year, researchers studied the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles in metropolitan Washington, D.C. They tracked 241 drivers, who were involved in 82 crashes of various degrees of seriousness – 15 were reported to police – and 761 near-crashes. The air bag deployed in three instances.

The project analyzed nearly 2 million miles driven and more than 43,300 hours of data.

Drowsy driving increased the driver’s risk of a crash or near-crash by four times to six times, the study said. But the study’s authors said drowsy driving is frequently underreported in police investigations.

When drivers took long glances away from the road at the wrong moment, they were twice as likely to get into a crash, the report said.

Assessing cell phone use, the researchers said the number of crashes or near-crashes linked to dialing the phones was nearly identical to those tied to talking or listening on the phone.

Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit people from talking on handheld cell phones while driving.

A government report last year found that about 10 percent of drivers are using cell phones.

The cell phone industry and others say distraction takes many forms; for example, eating food, going through the newspaper or inserting CDs into the stereo system.

Also Thursday, a preliminary report from the safety agency said the highway death rate rose slightly in 2005 after falling for two years. The government said 43,200 people died on the road, compared with 42,636 in 2004.

On the Net:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute: