Eight out of 10 crashes involve drivers who are drowsy, using a cell phone, applying makeup or otherwise distracted from the road ahead, according to a government study released Thursday that videotaped people behind the wheel.
Reviewing thousands of hours of video and data from sensor monitors linked to more than 200 drivers, researchers found that a wide range of distractions can lead to crashes or near-crashes.
Reaching for a moving object while driving increased the risk of a crash by nine times, while reading or applying makeup from behind the wheel enhanced the risk by three times. Dialing a cell phone, meanwhile, increased the risk of a crash by nearly three times, researchers found.
Even gadgets designed to help, like navigation systems and voice activated phones can also cause problems if drivers pay more attention to the technology than the road, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
The study "illustrates the potentially dire consequences that can occur while driving distracted or drowsy. It's crucial that drivers always be alert when on the road," said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The project helped show what happens in the fractions of a second before a crash or near miss. Researchers said it showed the first links between crash risks and popular multi-tasking activities — from eating and talking to receiving e-mail in the driver's seat.
"All of these activities are much more dangerous than we thought before," said Dr. Charlie Klauer, a senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
"But also we're very concerned about the fact that not only are we drinking our coffee and we're disciplining our children and we're eating sandwiches in the car, but the proliferation of technologies in the vehicle have just exacerbated the amount of time that drivers are distracted," she said.
For more than a year, researchers with NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute studied the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles in northern Virginia and metropolitan Washington, D.C., equipped with video and sensors. They tracked 241 drivers, who were involved in 82 crashes of various degrees of seriousness — 15 were reported to police — and 761 near-crashes.
Called the 100-Car Study, the massive research project analyzed nearly 2 million miles driven and more than 43,300 hours of data.
"The huge database developed through this breakthrough study is enormously valuable in helping us to understand — and prevent — motor vehicle crashes," said Dr. Tom Dingus, the institute's director.
Drowsy driving increased the driver's risk of a crash or near-crash by four to six times, the study said. But the study's authors noted drowsy driving is frequently underreported in police crash investigations.
When drivers took long glances away from the road ahead of them 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 the number tied to talking or listening on the phone.
But even though the dangers of distracted driving are already well known, many drivers are unwilling to give up their driving diversions.
"Why aren't you worried about getting in an accident?" Orr asked a young driver who had been using a cell phone.
"Because I can multi-task," she said. "I'm pretty good at it."
"Yeah?" Orr said.
"Yeah." She replied.
Cell phone use in vehicles and the larger issue of distracted driving has generated considerable attention in recent years, with Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia prohibiting talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.
A government report last year found that about 10 percent of drivers are using cell phones.
But the cell phone industry and others say distraction takes many forms in our multi-tasking-obsessed society, with many drivers eating fast food, leafing through the morning newspaper or inserting CDs into their stereo system.
Some safety organizations cautioned that the study was among a growing body of research and worried that it might set off reactionary laws across the states.
"I urge legislators not to interpret these results as a need for new legislative initiatives. It is simply not good public policy to pass laws addressing every type of driver behavior," said Lt. Col. Jim Champagne, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association.