Blacksburg, Va. Those sleep-deprived, multitasking drivers - clutching cell phones, fiddling with their radios or applying lipstick - apparently are involved in an awful lot of crashes.
Distracted drivers were involved in nearly eight out of 10 collisions or near-crashes, according to a study released Thursday by the government.
Researchers reviewed thousands of hours of video and data from sensor monitors linked to more than 200 drivers, and pinpointed examples of what keeps drivers from paying close attention to the road.
"We see people on the roadways talking on the phone, checking their stocks, checking scores, fussing with their MP3 players, reading e-mails, all while driving 40, 50, 60, 70 miles per hour and sometimes even faster," said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of the government's highway safety agency.
A driver who reaches for a moving object increases the risk of a crash or collision by nine times, according to researchers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
They found that the risk of a crash increases almost threefold when a driver is dialing a cell phone.
Researchers said the report showed the first links between crash risks and a driver's activities, from eating and talking to receiving e-mail.
"All of these activities are much more dangerous than we thought before," said Dr. Charlie Klauer, a senior research associate at the institute. Data from police reports had estimated that driver inattention was a factor in about 25 percent of crashes.
For many drivers, the research offered more proof of what they see on their daily commutes.
John Simpson of Christiansburg, Va., said his "personal favorite" is once seeing a woman in traffic "with her knees up on the steering wheel, sheet music in her lap and she was playing the flute."
But Simpson, a 20-year-old who works for a fire safety business, says multitasking can be a necessity. For example, he must take calls from customers while driving in his Chevy Astro van.
"I'm notorious for the cell phone and coffee. But if you're up on the road at 6 o'clock in the morning, coffee is probably the best thing in the world," he said.
For more than a year, researchers studied the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles in metropolitan Washington, D.C. They tracked 241 drivers, who were involved in 82 crashes of various degrees of seriousness - 15 were reported to police - and 761 near-crashes. Drowsy driving increased the driver's risk of a crash or near-crash by four times to six times, the study said. But the study's authors said drowsy driving frequently was underreported in police investigations. When drivers took long glances away from the road 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 those tied to talking or listening on the phone.