The Most Dangerous Driver Behaviors

We’ve all seen someone doing something unbelievable behind the wheel: shaving, putting on makeup, eating a full meal with knife and fork, reading the newspaper. But it turns out that the most dangerous driving behaviors aren’t always so bizarre—some of them are things you probably do every day without thinking twice.

According to data compiled from real-world drivers and real-world crashes by the United States’ Second Strategic Highway Research Program Naturalistic Driving Study, funded by the U.S. Congress, it’s not the flagrant violations of good driving sense that cause the most crashes—it’s the minor ones. Looking at data from 905 crashes where injury or property damage resulted, the data shows the true threats of poor driver behavior to driving safety.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the data shows that the most dangerous thing a person can do is to drive while intoxicated. Drunk driving, however, is only marginally more dangerous than driving while distracted, and it’s much less common. As a result, the vast majority of the crashes studied were the result of driver inattention: in 68 percent of the crashes studied, the cause was an observed distraction to the driver.

There are many other behaviors that are nearly as dangerous as driving while intoxicated or while distracted, including speeding, driving while tired, driving too fast for the conditions (e.g.: snow, fog, rain), following too closely, or failing to yield the right of way. The danger only rises when drivers combine two or more of these behaviors together, especially if one of those behaviors includes a significant distraction from the road.

The form of the distraction can vary. Email, text, and social media on smart phones are among the most common distractions, but other distractions can have big impacts, too. Being emotional for example, can cause a great deal of distraction; the study found that driving while crying, sad, angry, or agitated increases the risk of a crash by 980 percent. Distracted driving is a problem for drivers of all ages, but the study notes that it’s especially problematic among younger drivers, particularly teens.

Despite the obvious risk of taking your eyes off the road to dial a handheld cell phone or send a text message, the data collected by the study is sobering—drivers in the study engaged in these distracting behaviors more than 50 percent of the time they were driving, creating a 200 percent higher crash risk.

The study advocates strong steps in the present to curb or eliminate distracted driving, warning that without such steps, the next generation of drivers will be at even greater risk of death or injury on the road.