Year-Long Study Reveals Driver Inattention Significantly Increases the Risk of Accidents

The data recorded by video cameras and other sensors, placed in 100 motor vehicles for more than a year, spoke for itself. Even brief portions of the video played on last night’s national and local news programs were startling and showed actual accidents and near-accidents during or immediately following periods of driver inattention.

Some 241 drivers were taped as they operated the specially equipped vehicles in all types of driving situations. The remarkable video record showed drivers doing everything from eating, drinking, talking on cell phones, and putting on makeup, to looking away, retrieving objects, adjusting audio equipment and selecting and changing CDs. One driver was actually shown driving off the road as he fell asleep at the wheel.

While many of those periods of inattention were taking place or as they concluded, accidents or near-accidents occurred. The problem was not always the inattentive driver doing something like driving off the road or losing control of his or her vehicle, however.

Often, as the driver was distracted or was refocusing on driving, dangerous situations had developed immediately in front of his or her vehicle that could not be reacted to properly.

Some of the more chilling examples included a driver dialing a cell phone as a small child on a tricycle peddled out into the street in front of the car (luckily the driver looked up in time to stop), a driver looking up just as an out-of-control car came skidding into her lane (accident could not be avoided), and a driver being confronted by a vehicle that had come to a sudden stop (the inattentive driver in that case drove off the road and into a utility pole).

According to the report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 80% of collisions and 65% of near-collisions occur within three seconds of some type of distraction.

The study recorded some 2 million miles of driving during which 82 collisions and 761 near-collisions occurred. Inattention occasioned by reading, dialing a hand-held device, or applying makeup tripled the risk of an accident or near-accident while reaching for a moving object increased that risk by 900%. Drowsiness had been thought o be a factor in 10% of collisions or near-collisions. The study revealed the risk to be far higher, at 22% (400% increased risk). Cell phone use was the most frequent distraction observed.

The researchers expressed concern over the fact that activities like eating, drinking, and retrieving objects were more risky than previously believed as well as the fact that the presence of new technologies has further compromised driver attention.

Even the shortest period of inattention or distraction can have serious consequences. Thus, the NHTSA emphasizes the need for drivers to remain alert at all times.

Young drivers (18 to 20) were found to be 400% more likely to be involved in attention-related accidents or near accidents as drivers over 35. They were also found to be more likely to use poor judgment, drive aggressively, or engage in distracted behavior in high-risk situations.

In terms of real-world examples of how a simple distraction can be catastrophic, one of the largest personal injury settlements on record came in a New York case where a tractor-trailer driver lost control of his rig as he reached for a water bottle on the floor.

The driver lost control of the truck, which then skidded off the roadway, overturned, and blocked the entire highway in the early morning hours and just over the crest of a hill.

A vacationing family in a mini-van could not avoid the overturned tractor-trailer and there was a terrible collision that left one child profoundly brain damaged and the rest of the family with devastating physical injuries. The case was handled by the law firm of Parker & Waichman, which negotiated a then New York record structured settlement worth a projected $78 million.        

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