Sometimes it seems as if life used to be simpler. When we drove, we had fewer distractions and fewer things to worry about. Were they truly the good old days? Perhaps, because increases in the number of distractions around us while we drive would hardly appear to be a good thing. New research now available reveals the risks, and the links to the risks, that raise the chances of a car crash. Factors that contribute to crashes are generally either physical, such as driving under the influence, or mental, such as the distraction of your smart phone. In the latest studies we’ll present here, two have a physical factor—sleeping pills, and traumatic brain injury (TBI) — and two have a mental factor—the kinds of music drivers listen to and texting.
Asleep at the Wheel
When you see someone driving erratically in the morning, do you think alcohol? It might be a sleeping pill hangover, according to recent research. It turns out that the sleeping pills some of us take for granted—Ambien (zolpidem), Restoril (temazepam), and Desyrel (trazodone)—can double the risk of a car crash, even after the effects have worn off. In fact, taking one of these drugs may raise your risk as much as having too much to drink, equivalent to blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels between 0.06 percent and 0.11 percent. The legal BAC limit in all states is 0.08 percent, the threshold for being legally drunk. The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that, over the five-year period, those who took Restoril had a 27 percent higher chance of being involved in an automobile crash. Those who used trazodone had nearly double the risk, 91 percent higher. And those who took Ambien had the highest risk of all: they were more than twice as likely to have an accident, when compared to non-users over the five-year study period.
Back in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that women be prescribed lower doses of sleep aids because womens’ bodies process the drugs more slowly. The FDA also recommended that drug manufacturers apply these lower-dose guidelines to men as well, though it did not make them a requirement. The findings in the study bolstered the FDA’s warnings about the sleep medications. Generally, if you have insomnia, the usual treatment to try first is not medication, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a combination of talk therapy and behavioral adjustments that reprograms your brain for sleep. If you suffer from insomnia and use one of the medications mentioned in the study, be mindful of your accident risk. You might want to consider forms of non-drug therapy instead of reaching for the pills.
Unforeseen Consequences of a Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has been linked to road rage and aggressive driving by Canadian researchers who recently published a study in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention. The researchers examined nearly 4,000 Canadian drivers ages 18 to 97. Those drivers who had suffered from at least one TBI during their lifetime had more incidents of serious road rage or aggressive driving than those who had never experienced a brain injury. “Serious road rage” was defined in the study as threatening another passenger or driver with harm, or threatening to damage another vehicle. TBI comes from head trauma that usually results in significant loss of consciousness. The damage done to the brain when a TBI occurs seems to disrupt the brain’s waste removal system. A sudden, severe blow to the head, or repeated milder blows, can each have the same effect on the brain and cause a traumatic injury. The study also showed that people with a history of TBI were also much more likely to have a car crash history that caused injury to themselves or others. “These data suggest links between TBI and hazardous driving behaviors, but at this early stage we can’t be sure if these relationships are causal,” said Dr. Robert Mann, who is a senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Dr. Mann is also the co-principal investigator of the study. The lead author of the study, Dr. Gabriela Ilie, who is also a post-doctoral fellow at St. Michael’s Hospital, commented that, “Perhaps the burden of traffic collisions and road rage could be mitigated if we were mindful of the implications associated with a brain injury.” The quality of our brain and its health determines so many things in our lives, including our abilities to drive well without harming others.
Musical Memories and Distraction
It turns out that the music you listen to while driving, if you feel an emotional connection to it, can make you distracted enough to be vulnerable to an accident. A new book, Driving With Music: Cognitive-Behavioural Implications by Professor Warren Brodsky, explores the connection among music, emotional response, and driving. “The car is the only place in the world you can die just because you’re listening to the wrong kind of music,” Brodsky said. What happens is this: When a song that the driver feels emotionally attached to catches their attention, the driver becomes distracted because they are focused on the emotional response produced. Brodsky recommends that drivers avoid any music that triggers intense emotions and that you should change the music if you find yourself falling into an emotional state. Brodsky, the director of music psychology in the Department of the Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel noted, “Whether it’s Beethoven, Basie or Bieber is irrelevant. Ideally drivers should choose tunes that do not trigger distracting thoughts, memories, emotions, or hand drumming along to the beat while driving.”
There’s more research between music and accidents, but it focuses on aggression, not distraction. Listening to certain kinds of music may increase your chances of having an accident because of the tendency to exhibit aggression or road rage. British psychologists have concluded that listening to hard rock, classic rock, or hip-hop makes us more likely to have an accident. Inattentive or dangerous driving has even been linked to enjoying specific songs, with a “top ten” list of pieces of music you should not listen to while driving.
Texting Bans or Cell Phone Usage Bans: Which Prevents More Accidents?
Cell phone usage—making and taking calls, texting, surfing the web or using GPS—has become commonplace as most of us started carrying cell phones or smart phones. But texting has been singled out as causing the most accidents. Do texting bans lower vehicular accident rates? That is the question of the hour. According to 2011 data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), 31 percent of drivers ages 18 to 64 said they had read or sent text messages or emails while driving at least once in the previous 30 days. That’s nearly a third of the drivers surveyed. During the same year, 3,331 people were killed and 387,000 were injured in distracted driver crashes. Clearly, we have a problem with our devices and our driving. While some early research appeared to show that texting bans didn’t reduce car accidents, more recent studies have produced a link between banning texting and accident reduction. But the accident-prevention link is stronger when the ban is on all cell phone usage, and the law involves primary enforcement, meaning that an officer can pull you over simply on the suspicion of texting. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health looked at what impact, if any, anti-texting laws had on crash-related fatalities from 2000 to 2010. The study was led by Dr. Alva J. Ferdinand and the findings were published in the August, 2014, issue of American Journal of Public Health. The results? Well, read on. “We were a little surprised to see that primarily-enforced texting bans were not associated with significant reductions in fatalities among those ages 21 to 64, who are not considered to be young drivers,” Ferdinand said. “However, states with bans prohibiting the use of cellphones without hands-free technology altogether on all drivers saw significant reductions in fatalities among this particular age group. Thus, 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.”
Back in 2001, New York became the first state to prohibit all drivers from talking on a handheld phone while driving. Because it has the oldest laws, a number of studies have been run in New York. While initially it seemed that the ban on all handheld cell phone usage increased the accident rate, over time other studies have shown the opposite. Fatalities have dropped, but there is speculation that rigorous enforcement of the primary law has been the key. The drop in fatalities also seems to be tied to the ban on all usage, not just a ban on texting. In general across the U.S., bans only on texting alone do not seem to be as effective in preventing vehicular fatalities as bans on all handheld usage.
Conclusions We Can Draw
As the rate of new technology advances continues to accelerate, our vehicles and our driving habits will continue to change. We at Kaplan Lawyers, PC, hope that you will not only obey the law, but will use common sense when a potential new distraction comes along. Safety on the road is everyone’s job. People on New York roads lose their lives every day because of car accidents. Let’s all do what we can to prevent accidents and make our lives, and the lives of our neighbors, safe from harm.
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