BLACKSBURG, Va. — Eight out of 10 crashes involve drivers who are drowsy, chatting on a cell phone, applying makeup or otherwise distracted from the road ahead, according to a government study released yesterday that videotaped people behind the wheel.
Reviewing thousands of hours of video and data from sensor monitors linked to more than 200 drivers, researchers found that a wide range of distractions can lead to crashes or near crashes.
Reaching for a moving object while driving increased the risk of a crash by nine times, while reading or applying makeup from behind the wheel enhanced the risk by three times.
Dialing a cell phone, meanwhile, increased the risk of a crash by nearly three times, researchers found.
The study “illustrates the potentially dire consequences that can occur while driving distracted or drowsy. It’s crucial that drivers always be alert when on the road,” said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Officials provided details of the study at a press conference yesterday.
For more than a year, researchers with NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute studied the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles in Northern Virginia and metropolitan Washington equipped with video and sensors.
They tracked 241 drivers, who were involved in 82 crashes of various degrees of seriousness — 15 were reported to police — and 761 near crashes.
Called the 100-Car Study, the massive research project analyzed nearly 2 million miles driven and more than 43,300 hours of data.
“The huge database developed through this breakthrough study is enormously valuable in helping us to understand — and prevent — motor vehicle crashes,” said Tom Dingus, the institute’s director.
Drowsy driving increased the driver’s risk of a crash or near crash by four to six times, the study said. But the study’s authors noted drowsy driving frequently is underreported in police crash investigations.
When drivers took long glances away from the road ahead of them at the wrong moment, they were twice as likely to get into a crash, the report said.
Assessing cell phone use, the researchers said the number of crashes or near crashes linked to dialing the phones was nearly identical to the number tied to talking or listening on the phone.
Cell phone use in vehicles and the larger issue of distracted driving have generated considerable attention in recent years, with Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District prohibiting talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.
A government report last year found that about 10 percent of drivers are using cell phones.
But the cell phone industry and others say distraction takes many forms in our multitasking-obsessed society, with many drivers eating fast food, leafing through the morning newspaper or inserting discs into their stereo systems.