This surprising distraction increases the risk of car crashes tenfold

distracted driving
CC BY 2.0 Caio Resende

Texting behind the wheel is one thing, but a comprehensive new study warns of even riskier distractions.

At TreeHugger we talk a lot about the relationship between pedestrians and cyclists and drivers, and how the delicate dynamic between any of the two can so easily be upset – especially when it comes to losing focus. Anyone on the road or sidewalk may be prone to distraction, but distracted drivers are arguably the most dangerous since they come with heavy, fast-moving machines that plow into things.

There has been much public awareness centered around texting and driving, but a new study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals other distractions that are as unexpected as they are dangerous.

The researchers used data from the Second Strategic Highway Research Program Naturalistic Driving Study (the largest light-vehicle naturalistic driving study ever conducted) to fuel their research. This kind of study involves regular cars, though equipped with cameras, being driven by regular people over long periods of time. And according to the data collected, drivers engage in some type of distracting activity more than 50 percent of the time they are driving. How crazy is that? (Cyclists and pedestrians should definitely keep this in mind – not only is infrastructure often stacked against them, but drivers are distracted more than half the time!)

They found that drivers more than double their crash risk when they do things that bring their eyes away from the road – like using a handheld device, reading or writing, or using touchscreen menus on a car’s instrument panel.

Which isn’t that surprising, but what about this? Drivers increase their crash risk nearly tenfold when they get behind the wheel while observably angry, sad, crying, or emotionally agitated. Who knew?

"These findings are important because we see a younger population of drivers, particularly teens, who are more prone to engaging in distracting activities while driving," says Tom Dingus, lead author of the study and director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Of the 905 higher severity crashes involving injury or property damage that they studied, they found that driver-related factors such as fatigue, error, impairment, and distraction were there in almost 90 percent of the accidents. (And note, the study relied only on drivers who were alert and sober.)

"We have known for years that driver-related factors exist in a high percentage of crashes, but this is the first time we have been able to definitively determine – using high-severity, crash-only events that total more than 900 – the extent to which such factors do contribute to crashes," Dingus said.

Also surprisingly, they found some behaviors weren’t as risky as anticipated. Things like putting on makeup and tailgating were minimally present or not at all in the crashes analyzed. Meanwhile, interacting with a child in the backseat was found to, get this, have a protective effect – as in, it reduced the risk from the base risk value.

Which isn't to say that applying mascara on the highway is OK or that talking to your kid will balance out texting an urgent message. I've also read sobering statistics about the risks of eating while driving, which weren't mentioned here. Regardless, as far as I'm concerned, when driving the one and only focus should be on the road – I'm from the "these crazy horseless carriages are terrifying" camp – but knowing that a tender emotional state can have such a significant impact is important. From hereon, happy driving only.

This surprising distraction increases the risk of car crashes tenfold
Texting behind the wheel is one thing, but a comprehensive new study warns of even riskier distractions.

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