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Cameras Find Drivers Distracted by More Than Cellphones

April 21, 2006|Michael Dresser | The Baltimore Sun

If you are 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 that nearly 80% of automobile crashes and 65% of close calls involve distracted driving -- including dialing cellphones, putting on makeup, and sleepiness.

The four-year study, released Thursday 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 -- raising 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 cellphone use while driving.

The study implicated cellphone use in about 7% of accidents. But it found that while the act of talking by phone poses a statistically insignificant risk, dialing while driving raised 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.

Using cameras mounted in 100 test vehicles lent to drivers in 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.

The study, which followed 241 drivers as they drove more than 2 million miles, provides data that sometimes challenge and sometimes confirm conventional wisdom about 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, women were more likely to be in accidents caused by inattention.

* Dialing a cellphone is one of the more dangerous things a driver can do, but applying makeup 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 talking on a cellphone (1.6 to 1 odds vs. 1.3 to 1). Drinking while driving -- presuming the beverage isn't alcoholic -- appears to add no risk. But if your soda goes tumbling, let it go. The most dangerous distraction identified in the study was reaching for a moving object, which increases the odds of a crash or close call almost ninefold.

* The study found no evidence that smoking makes for more-dangerous drivers.

The cameras 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.

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