It used to be that car accidents had some fairly basic causes, such as drunk driving, speeding, or even automotive mechanical failures. Cars these days are built to be much more reliable, so mechanical difficulties and tire blowouts are not as big a problem as they once were. But, hear this, because the research is in—distractions and inattention caused by the proliferation of on-board technologies and smartphones, as well as the phenomenon of road rage, are more widespread than ever before. In some of the latest studies, the plausible links to accidents run the spectrum from sleeping pills to—could you believe it?—music.
These greater risks come at a time when cars and highways are safer than ever before. And yet, this feeling of safety can, paradoxically, cause more accidents because our feelings of security and reduced fears of dying in a crash lead us to take more risks. Our brains are tweaked into taking chances. It’s called risk compensation, and basically it means that, as vehicles and systems become safer and less likely to kill us, we engage in riskier behavior.
Sleeping Pills and the Increased Crash Risk the Day After
Perhaps you rely on sleeping pills to help you get the rest you need during your hectic week. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine million do. And, if you are a woman, there’s a greater chance you are doing so than if you’re a man; those who are older, white, female, and better-educated are more likely to take such medications. But the lack of bodily tolerance, because of a female’s size and metabolism, makes her more vulnerable to taking too much, and also to having a “hangover” the next day that increases crash risk. That’s the reason the FDA, back in 2013, recommended lower dosages for women taking sleep aids.
But we don’t mean to pick on women here. The fact is, for both sexes, the usage of a number of the most-commonly prescribed sleeping pills—Ambien (zolpidem), Restoril (temazepam), and Desyrel (trazodone)—doubles the risk of a vehicular crash even after the side effects have long since worn off. It’s been shown that taking any one of these drugs can raise your risk of driving under the influence as much as if you’d slugged one or two shots of bourbon with your morning coffee. The after-effect of these medications can be equivalent to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level between 0.06 percent and 0.11 percent. For the record, the threshold for being legally under the influence in all states is 0.08 BAC. In other words, your reactions behind the wheel while you are still reeling from your nightly dosage of sleeping aid could be the same as someone who is, according to the legal definition, drunk.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that, over a five-year period, people who took Restoril had a 27 percent higher chance of being involved in a crash. Furthermore, the ones who took trazodone had an even greater risk—it was 91 percent higher. Finally, the ones who used Ambien were more than twice as likely to have an accident when compared to non-users.
If you take sleeping medications, consider trying non-pill alternatives to getting a good night’s rest. Cognitive-behavioral therapy couples talk therapy with behavioral changes in an effort to reprogram your brain for sleep. If you can’t quit the pills, at least be aware of your increased accident risk, and take the smallest amount possible that gets you a decent night’s rest.
Traumatic Brain Injury and Increased Risk of Automotive Crashes
Various forms of traumatic brain injury (TBI), including concussions, can increase the risk of road rage. Canadian researchers recently published a study in Accident Analysis and Prevention examining roughly 4,000 Canadian drivers from the ages of 18 to 97—a pretty comprehensive sample, age-wise, of the driving public. The researchers found that drivers who had experienced at least one TBI during their lifetime were more likely to suffer incidents of aggressive driving or serious road rage than those with no history of TBI. In this study, “serious road rage” meant that another passenger or driver was threatened with harm, or that a vehicle was threatened with damage. Dr. Gabriela Ilie, the lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at St. Michael’s Hospital, commented, “Through this study, we wanted to examine if a link between traumatic brain injuries and road-related aggression and driving collisions also exists.”
TBI is often defined as head trauma that produces several minutes’ loss of consciousness. The damage done to the brain appears to upset the brain’s “waste removal” system, which may provide clues in the future regarding fixing or remediating such injuries. Repeated, milder blows (this is where concussions come in) can have the same effect as a single traumatic injury.
Another conclusion the study drew is that people with a history of TBI are also much more likely to have a history of car accidents that cause injury to themselves or to others. Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and co-investigator of the study, commented, “It appears that a large proportion of the driving population has experienced these injuries, so understanding how trauma to the head affects driving could have important implications for improving traffic safety.”
Music Causes Car Accidents? No Way!
“Yes, way,” as the old slang saying goes. The music you enjoy while driving, if it has emotional significance for you, can distract you enough to make you at risk of an accident. Professor Warren Brodsky’s latest book, Driving With Music: Cognitive-Behavioural Implications, investigates the links that exist regarding our emotional responses, the music that evokes those responses, and our driving habits. Brodsky’s shocking conclusion? “The car is the only place in the world you can die just because you’re listening to the wrong kind of music.”
His research demonstrates that music which evokes extreme emotions, whether positive or negative, should be avoided while driving. In fact, a quick change in the music you listen to can transform your emotional state from agitated to calmer, and Brodsky recommends you pay attention to your emotional state if you are becoming intensely involved with your music while driving. Emotionally-charged music distracts us because our brains pay so much attention to our emotional states. Ideally, he notes, “Drivers should choose tunes that do not trigger distracting thoughts, memories, emotions, or hand drumming along to the beat while driving.”
Additional research focuses on the link between music and accidents, but it concerns how music can produce aggression, not distraction. Certain kinds of music, such as hard rock, classic rock, metal, or hip-hop can increase the chances of an accident due to road rage. British psychologists have also linked inattentive driving to enjoying specific songs, coming up with a “top ten” list of songs you should not listen to if you are driving.
Do Texting and Cell Phone Usage Bans Prevent Accidents?
Cell phones are so commonplace, it’s hard to believe that only twenty years ago, they were still fairly unusual. In 1994, the United States had only 16 million cell phone customers, and roughly half of them were business users. But in 2014, about 90 percent of the U.S. population owned a cell phone, meaning nearly 290 million people are using them. One of the most recent counts put the total number of cell phones at 327 million—more than one per person.
Much attention has been focused on texting as being the biggest cause of accidents when it comes to phones. Therefore, it’s reasonable to ask whether texting bans lower accident rates. According to data in 2011 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost one-third—31 percent—of drivers ages 18 to 64 admitted to reading or sending text messages or emails while driving at least one time in the previous month. During the same year, because of distracted driving, 3,331 people died and 387,000 were injured in car accidents.
Initially, research appeared to show that texting bans did not reduce the rate of accidents. However, more recent studies have demonstrated links between the banning of texting and the reduction of car accidents. Additionally, the case for accident prevention is stronger when the law bans all cell phone usage and also allows primary enforcement, meaning that you can be pulled over on just the suspicion of texting.
At the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, researchers reviewed what impact anti-texting laws had on fatalities caused by vehicular accidents between 2000 and 2010. Dr. Alva J. Ferdinand, the leader of the study, admitted that the findings, published in the August, 2014, issue of American Journal of Public Health, were not exactly what they were expecting. Primary-enforcement texting bans did not significantly reduce fatalities among those ages 21 to 64. It was only when all cell phone usage except for hands-free technology was banned that a reduction in deaths became noteworthy in this age group. Ferdinand did indicate that texting-only bans appear to save more lives among young drivers: “Although texting-while-driving bans were most effective for reducing traffic-related fatalities among young individuals, handheld bans appear to be most effective for adults.”
What Can We Conclude?
Clearly, technology is not going away. Dangers from distraction are only likely to increase in the future, such as with the latest wrinkle, the “head-up” display available on some of the more expensive vehicles. Data providing constant information about the car and any linked devices (such as phones) appears to float in front of the windshield, attracting the eyes and the attention of the driver. This new technology could become the next powerful distraction in our vehicles. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the law will be able to keep up with technology.
Likewise, the use of sleeping aids, the enjoyment of certain kinds of music, and other potentially problematic situations probably aren’t going to change. We can only change ourselves and our habits. We at the Law Offices of Steven H. Heisler urge you to exercise common sense when it comes to the use of technology in your car, and hope that you will take to heart some of the recent studies we have reported here. Keeping yourself and your family safe starts with you and your driving habits. Please do your part.
How Can “The Injury Lawyer” Help You?
Steven Heisler has been practicing law in Maryland since 1988. In 1996, however, he decided to focus exclusively on personal injury law. Why? Steve has a heart for helping people. He determined that his education and experience could best be put to use advocating for the rights of folks who were harmed through the negligent actions of others.
At the Law Offices of Steven H. Heisler, we know how traumatic a serious car accident can be for both the injured person and for his or her family. In our work to help victims recover compensation because of drunk, distracted, or otherwise negligent drivers, we’ve become aware of the complex issues surrounding Maryland laws and new technology. Often, the law has not kept up.
If you or a family member has been the victim of a serious vehicular accident, call Baltimore personal injury attorney Steve Heisler. Keep in mind, however, that there is a statute of limitations – or a time limit – for filing personal injury claims. If you have been injured in an accident or suffered the loss of a family member, you should not delay. Contact the Law Offices of Steven H. Heisler of Baltimore, Maryland, for a free initial consultation by calling (410) 625-4878 today, or use our online form.