Washington Post Article – Risky Motorist Behaviors

Va. Study: Eyes on The Road

Rubbernecking Riskier Than Using Cell Phone

By Matt McMillen

Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 18, 2003; Page HE01

A new study of traffic accidents conducted on Virginia roads has found, unsurprisingly, that many car crashes are the result of driver distraction. But while cell phones are increasingly fingered as dangerous in-car distractions, the study, conducted by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), found that old-fashioned rubbernecking was the biggest single cause, accounting for 16 percent of distraction-related crashes.

Officer John Carney of the Fairfax County Police is not surprised that people gawking at an accident cause a lot of additional accidents themselves. “I’ve had as many as three accidents at one scene, at one intersection,” says Carney. “Rubbernecking is the most dangerous distraction, in my experience.”

Until now, though, there were no numbers to back up his observation.

The state, county, and municipal police officers who participated in the study reported nearly 2,800 crashes caused by distractions between June and November 2002. The common distractions included fatigue, daydreaming and adjusting the car stereo.The incident reports ranged from the mundane (children acting up in the back seat) to the exotic (one driver was distracted while being chased by his drug dealer). One accident was caused by a reporter reaching for a press pass.

Seeking Answers

In 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 144,585 crashes in Virginia, according to DMV statistics. Thirteen percent of those crashes were caused by driver inattention, which, according to a VCU study published in December 2001, made it the top-ranked cause of all crashes and the second-ranked cause of fatal crashes in Virginia.

But the DMV did not give police a way to report what the particular distractions were. Vince Burgess, the department’s assistant commissioner for transportation safety, wanted to know — and he wanted Virginia drivers to know, too.

“By us talking [about specific distractions], the public will become more aware,” he says. “It makes us all more aware of our behavior.”

To get at the numbers, Burgess’s office approached Robert Breitenbach, who directs VCU’s Transportation Safety Training Center. Together, they developed the Distracted Driver Survey. Officers in all seven state police divisions, as well as officers in four selected counties and 14 cities (those counties and cities were chosen to yield a representative sample of the entire state), received the survey form in June of last year.

The survey required officers to identify the primary cause of distraction in any accident that they determined had been caused by inattention. “We wanted the meat and potatoes,” says Breitenbach. “We wanted something that links back to the crash event.”

The nearly 2,800 completed surveys ultimately provided that. Both Burgess and Breitenbach see the survey as a tool to help lawmakers draft traffic and safety policies. If, for example, the survey results had implicated cell phones or DVD players in an unusually high number of accidents, those results could have been used in efforts to regulate their use.

But it turns out that cell phones didn’t even make the top five on the list of offenders.

Behind rubbernecking (which the study defined as looking at accidents or other activity on the roads) were driver fatigue (12 percent), looking at scenery (10 percent), other passengers or children (9 percent) and adjusting the radio, cassette or CD player (7 percent). Reading the newspaper, books, maps or other documents ranked 14th, causing less than 2 percent of the accidents in the study. (If you are driving right now, please put the newspaper down until you have safely parked your car.) In about 3 percent of the cases, the distraction was either unknown or not reported.

When broken down by location, the figures show fatigue was the top cause in rural areas; rubbernecking was No. 1 in urban areas.

However the causes are ranked, the data likely underestimate the number of accidents caused by distraction, says Jane Stutts, an associate director of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina. In her study of national driver distraction statistics, she says, “we were looking at crash data collected in high-level investigations, and there was still a high percentage of unknowns.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which supplied the data for Stutts’s research, estimates that driver inattention is responsible for a quarter of all car crashes.

“How to ask questions at the scene is very important,” she says. For an officer trying to determine what caused an accident, bags of food or spilled drinks are often giveaways, but “cell phones are small and you don’t often see them.”

For Carney, who did not participate in the study, sometimes questions aren’t necessary. “A lot of it comes from basic honesty, basic human nature. If you cause an accident, your initial reaction is to say, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. I dropped my phone.’ ” Breitenbach says getting the best answers is a product of experience: “As a police officer, you learn to ask questions in a way that they [distracted drivers] have answered them before they knew what was asked,” he says. “The officers did a good job” collecting data, he said. “There are thousands of vehicles,” says Carney, “Some of them are bound to touch each other at some point.”

For those on the road, his advice is simple: “Drive with your head.”

And not, presumably, with a rubber neck.•

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