Dec. 5, 2008 -- Daydreaming drivers are getting a reality check.
A significant number of car crashes are caused when drivers are not paying attention, according to a new report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The study -- dubbed as landmark by the U.S. government -- is the first of its kind in 30 years. The research, officials say, could be helpful in determining what crash avoidance technologies may help prevent collisions.
The NHTSA analyzed 5,470 crashes occurring between 6 a.m. and midnight from July 2005 to Dec. 2007.
In 36 percent of those crashes, vehicles were turning or crossing at intersections right before the accident occurred. About 22 percent of the vehicles ran off the edge of the road. Only 5 percent were driving too fast when the accident occurred and 2.1 percent of crashes were caused by poor road conditions.
In other results, about 41 percent of the crashes were attributed to drivers being distracted, not paying attention (which would include daydreaming) and failing to look or see when it would be safe to maneuver. Thirty-four percent of the accidents were blamed on driving errors, such as driving aggressively or too fast. Ten percent were due to performance errors.
"I'm not sure if there are any real surprises because through history we've known that human error is the largest factor in vehicle crashes, so that part of it wasn't a real surprise," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for NHTSA. "I think what we've learned since the last causation study we did 30 years ago is that a great deal has changed in terms of the vehicle, in terms of the driver behavior, and of course in terms of roadway."
He added that new technologies, such as cell phones and Blackberries, have added a new dimension of danger.
The report may also spur debate on whether drivers should be allowed to use cell phone while driving.
Nearly 41 percent of drivers in the case cars were involved in another activity besides driving -- mostly talking on the cell phone or with a passenger -- and most of these were drivers in the 16-25 age group. Currently, five states, Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands prohibit drivers from talking on handheld cell phones.
Among other factors, fatigued drivers were twice as likely as non-fatigued drivers to make performance errors.
More than half of the drivers involved in the case crashes were male, and drivers between the ages of 16 and 25 had the highest crash involvement.
The number of fatalities in 2007 was at a 12-year low, but still, car crashes claim more than 41,000 lives every year.
Officials say the information from the survey can be used to design new technologies, such as electronic stability control, lane departure warnings, devices to pick up on drowsy drivers, intersection devices to warn of close ongoing traffic, and any laws that limit cell phone use in vehicles.
"By determining what factors there were that caused the crash in the first place, you can understand what technology might better prevent that crash from taking place and offer the most promise," Tyson said.
Until then, drivers need to get back to reality, off the phone and on the road to avoid a traffic disaster.
"There is a lot of technology coming that holds the promise of affecting some crashes, but we don't know yet how effective it will be or how drivers will react to it," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "But we know what works right now to reduce crashes. But too often those countermeasures are not implemented."
For example, only Arizona uses a technology called automated photo enforcement that helps curb speeding on highways.
Rader added that more low-cost, low-manpower measures can be implemented by states to deter drinking and driving -- and while technologies can help, drivers need to be more cautious on their end, too.
"Vehicles are much safer than they were even 10 years ago, but drivers aren't holding up their end of the bargain," he said.