While cell phones have recently sprung up as a common cause of car accidents, a study, the largest to date on crashes involving distracted drivers, found that rubbernecking causes far more accidents than cell phone use.
The largest number of accidents was caused by drivers looking at other accidents, traffic or roadside incidents. Comparatively, cell phone use ranked as the sixth highest cause. The study included data on more than 2,700 accidents involving distracted drivers between June and November 2002.
Moreover, some 98 percent of the accidents reported involved a single distracted driver.
According to the study, rubbernecking accounted for 16 percent of accidents reported. This was followed by driver fatigue, which was responsible for 12 percent, looking at scenery or landmarks (10 percent), passenger or child distractions (nine percent), adjusting the radio, tape or CD player (seven percent), and cell phone use (five percent).
Distractions from inside the vehicle accounted for 62 percent of the distractions reported while distractions from outside the vehicle accounted for 35 percent, and three percent of the distractions were undetermined.
Of the crashes that occurred in rural areas, nearly two-thirds of the crashes reported, common causes included driver fatigue, insects entering or striking the vehicle, or animals and unrestrained pet distractions.
In urban areas, automobile accidents caused by distracted drivers were often due to drivers looking at other crashes, traffic or vehicles, or cell phone use.
Researchers say that the findings likely apply to many regions in the United States because the study included a mix of rural and urban counties, a diverse ethnic population, and varying road conditions and types.
The Washington Post March 17, 2003
So cell phones appear to only be a minor influence in car accidents. It is not clear to me if this is just because not as many people are using them in the car and it takes awhile for the statistics to manifest themselves, or if indeed it is not a major risk.
What is clear is that rubbernecking is something that is best avoided. When I use to drive in on the Chicago expressway to college 30 years ago, one of the major challenges I had was the traffic delays that resulted from those who had to slow down or stop to see an accident in the opposite facing lanes.
It turns out that this behavior actually causes accidents in addition to wasting the time of all those on the road. So if you find that you engage in this habit please consider revising it.