The screams and gasps were just what one might expect from an audience watching a horror movie, but the scenes on the screen were slices of everyday life: real-world traffic accidents in progress, seen in footage recorded inside the ill-fated cars as part of a study of driver attention patterns.
Playing on a digital screen, and eliciting alarm from a crowd of experts here for a conference on auto telematics, were some of the 82 crashes — and almost 10 times as many near misses — recorded during a yearlong research project by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg, Va. The goal of the study was to collect the kind of information that does not usually turn up in accident reports, insurance claims or other types of after-the-fact data gathering. It found that driver inattention was the overwhelming cause of the crashes in the study.
The study, in brief, place multiple cameras and recording devices in 100 cars in northern Virginia for 13 months and recorded every last mile they drove. That's 100 cars, 13 months, 42,300 hours of driving, 241 drivers, nearly 2,000,000 miles. During that time, the following data set was generated (according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute press release):
- 15 police-reported and 67 non-police reported crashes. Crashes were defined as any physical contact between the subject vehicle and another vehicle, pedestrian, or object, including low impact events, such as striking curbs and parking blocks.
- 761 near-crashes (situations requiring a rapid, severe evasive maneuver to avoid a crash).
- 8,295 incidents (situations requiring an evasive maneuver occurring at less magnitude than a near-crash).
- Nearly 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near-crashes involved driver inattention, just prior (within 3 seconds) to the onset of the conflict.
- In addition, the study showed that total crash involvement may be over five times higher than police reported crashes.
The main cause of all this? Inattention. Back to the Times article:
In some cases, drivers who had ample warning to take evasive and preventive action failed to do so because they were distracted or drowsy. Analysis of the data found that in nearly 80 percent of actual crashes and 65 percent of near crashes, the driver was inattentive in some way within three seconds beforehand. In rear-end collisions, the drivers were distracted 93 percent of the time.Care to guess what were the worst diversions? You, in the back, did you say cellphones?
The study found that drivers were overconfident or very poor at predicting when it was safe to look away from the road to perform another task. Driving situations can change abruptly, but many drivers seem to be lured into thinking the world outside the moving car can be put on hold while they pay attention to other things.
One of the distracting activities noted most often was what Dr. Hankey called a "complex multistep, multiglance secondary task," like pushing buttons on a cellphone or similar device. More than 22 percent of the crashes and near crashes involved that kind of distraction. Young drivers in the study were far more likely to be distracted by such tasks.
This might sound familiar. Read Atlanta By Bike's experience just a couple of days before this article came out.
So why do I run this in a bike blog?
We're sharing the road with these folks, who I've referred to as Buffalo before, big, fast, heavy, ubiquitous, usually somewhere between cheerfully oblivious and actively stupid and therefore dangerous even without malicious intent. That last bit about young people being particularly susceptible to distraction rings true; recall that the person next to me at work had her 16-year-old daughter total the family Camry into one of our parking lot lightpoles last summer, and that our beloved Avalon has twice been clobbered in perfect conditions by 20-year-old females. Teenagers really really hate to be told by boring old middle-aged people that they're shitty drivers, but they are, and we've got forty years of loss experience to prove it. Maybe what this study shows is that they're not so much shitty as they are shittier, that the whole population (and the study's drivers aged 18-73) pretty much suck.
Us cyclists need to be wary of these Buffalo. We can ride with lights and reflectors, wear bright clothing, stay to the right, use approved hand signals, floss daily and keep our shoes shined but all it takes is some twit with a cell phone and a 4,000 pound car a few seconds before there's a horrible incident and the obligatory follow-up to the cop as the ambulance carries away the remains, "I didn't even see him."
Be careful out there.
PS The photo? Yep, that's me! I should have worn a helmet! This picture might be more convincing if I'd taken my glasses off. Despite its initial drama, it is actually me lying carefully next to a Cherry Icee that my buddy Paul ran over when parking a rental Camry in San Antonio in 2003. I lay down and looked dead (see the tongue hanging out? I'm a regular Laurence Olivier!) and his wife Anne took the photo.
PPS the deeply interested can read the 924 Meg PDF about the study available here.