Why are cell phones different than other distractions?
Question: I was talking with my kids about car accidents caused by drivers trying to rid their car of spiders or wasps or flying insects. We are wondering what percentage of accidents are insect distracted? Is having a bee in your car more distracting than being a drunk driver?
Answer: I was hoping to base my answer on the most current research available regarding insect-involved collisions, but apparently the researchers don’t care that much about insects that cause crashes. Instead, I’ll refer to an older study that includes bugs as a crash factor.
Back in 2005 researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) conducted a naturalistic driving study. If you’re not familiar with that kind of study, it just means they asked for volunteers, put cameras and sensors into their cars (in this study it was 100 vehicles), and then watched what people did while they drove.
It turns out that an insect in your car is really dangerous; a bug in your car increases your risk of a crash by more than six times compared to an attentive driver (without any insects in the car).
That’s a greater risk than dialing a phone, putting on makeup or reading a book.
So why don’t we hear more about the risks of insect-caused crashes?
Because it almost never happens. If we could completely eliminate all bug-involved crashes, according to this study we’d eliminate 0.35 percent of all crashes.
To be clear, that’s one-third of one percent, a tiny fraction of all causes of crashes.
I tried to find out how many crashes in Washington involve insects, but it’s such a tiny amount that the collision report doesn’t even have a category for it. The closest category is “Other driver distractions inside vehicle.”
In 2017 three of the 565 fatalities in Washington were attributed to this cause but, given the low frequency of insect-involved crashes, it’s likely that the distractions were something other than bugs (like trying to save your coffee).
Insect distraction is actually the second-highest risk factor mentioned in the VTTI study. The top of the list is “reaching for a moving object.” That could be a lot of things, but most of the time when we reach for a moving object while driving, it’s because our driving set it in motion.
It would include all the drivers reaching for spilled coffee or whatever is sliding off the passenger seat from braking too hard or cornering too fast.
Based on the risk factor (over eight times the risk), it’s better to let it spill, even if you have to go through the drive-through again or get your carpet cleaned.
Recent insect-distracted driving data are hard to find
In 2015 VTTI completed a second naturalistic driving study, this time with 1,000 vehicles and more advanced sensing equipment. Again, they had a category labeled “insect in vehicle.”
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the results. The data from the study is only available to qualified researchers. Presumably that’s so untrained people (like me) don’t misinterpret it and get it all wrong in a newspaper article.
Instead, I have to rely on researchers who write reports based on the data. Not remarkably, I haven’t found a single researcher who has expended the effort to analyze bug-related crashes.
Assuming the frequency of bug-related crashes has remained relatively steady (and we have no reason to believe it hasn’t), any analysis of the data is better spent considering other types of driver distraction.
As for comparing distraction from an insect to impaired driving, it’s tricky; both situations create risk, but they’re not the same kind of risk. Distractions divert your attention while impairment diminishes your abilities.
Some studies have found that texting while driving creates more risk than driving at the per se limit of .08, but that’s also a bit misleading because a distracted driver can stop being distracted just by putting the phone down (or stopping whatever behavior was causing distraction) while the impaired person is drunk or high all the way home.
The first naturalistic driving study didn’t include texting; this was 2005 — it would be two more years before the iPhone was released and smart phones really took off. But it did include a category called “dialing hand-held device,” which had a risk factor four times greater than an attentive driver.
The second naturalistic study gave texting an increased risk by a factor of six, similar to the insect in the car.
What we can conclude from the research is that when you’re texting you’re as dangerous as someone flailing wildly while trying to avoid getting stung by a bee.