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What Causes Traffic Jams and Car Crashes?

Naomi Mannino

We’ve all been there. You’re driving along when suddenly, traffic comes to a standstill. Then, after inching along for what seems like an eternity, just as suddenly as it stopped, traffic starts to move again, the road opening up as if by magic.

Traffic jams are frustrating because, although many are caused by accidents or road construction that we can see, just as many are caused seemingly by nothing. What’s behind those mysterious traffic jams?

More People, Less Roadways

Accidents do happen, and with more people on the roads today than in recent years, they’re more likely to occur.

But, it isn’t only that there are more drivers out there; there simply aren’t enough roads to keep up with demand. In fact, between 1980 and 1999, the number of miles of highway increased by 1.5 percent whereas the number of miles traveled by drivers increased by 76 percent. This imbalance between supply and demand has very real consequences, leading to more traffic jams, and worst of all, more car accidents.

You might think that this is just a big city problem—places where a large population is concentrated in a small space. But, the Federal Highway Administration reports that delays are becoming increasingly common in small cities and some rural areas as well.

Surprise Disruptions vs. Daily Congestion

About half of all traffic slowdowns are caused by temporary traffic flow disruptions. These are the unwelcome surprises that take over part of the roadway, such as an accident blocking a lane, a construction zone causing a bottleneck, or inclement weather conditions that affect all drivers. These are the slowdowns that you typically can’t anticipate.

The other half of slowdowns are caused by recurring congestion. Many drivers experience these delays multiple times a week. They are more predictable as they occur whenever too many vehicles enter the roadway, such as during a specific time of day (e.g., rush hour).

Even though we know when they’re likely to occur, many of us can’t avoid getting stuck in these delays, simply because our schedules are similar to those of the other drivers on the road.

Still, there are strategies to reduce the likelihood of being caught in a jam. For example, it’s a good idea to learn alternative routes for your daily travels. Even if a different route takes five, ten or even 20 minutes longer during normal traffic, it may save you 30 minutes or more during rush hour, while helping you to avoid dangerously busy intersections and roadways.

Many commuters swear by the free app Waze, which offers real-time traffic and road information. You can use it to re-route your trip should slowdowns or traffic jams occur while you’re driving.

Doing Your Part to Reduce Traffic Jams

Although you have no control over construction zones or the weather, understanding what causes car accidents, which contribute to 25 percent of surprise traffic jams, can help you change your driving behavior to avoid them.

Distracted Driving

When drivers use their phone to call or text while driving, their attention is diverted away from the road, which increases the likelihood of a crash. In fact, a recent study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that text messaging doubled the risk of a crash. Even tasks related to using the phone, such as reaching for it or looking for a contact, were associated with a greater crash risk.

Even if you keep your phone off or out of reach, keep in mind that distracted driving also includes eating, drinking, smoking, grooming, looking at maps or a navigation system, and even talking to passengers.

Impaired Driving

In 2015, driving while under the influence of alcohol resulted in the deaths of 10,265 people—29 percent of the vehicle crash deaths that year. But drunk driving isn’t the only form of impaired driving.

Driving while tired can endanger you and the others on the road, too. In 2014, there were 846 fatalities related to drowsy driving. The number of fatalities (and of drowsy-driving crashes overall) have remained largely consistent across the past decade. according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

You have a greater chance of being involved in a drowsy driving accident if you slept for six hours of fewer the night before, your drive lasts for three hours or more, or you’re driving between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Note that alcohol, prescription drugs, and even over-the-counter medications can increase your drowsiness, which leads to poorer attention, decreased accuracy, slower reaction times, and impaired mental processing, judgment, and decision-making. Therefore, it’s a good idea to check all your medications for drowsiness as a side effect and adjust your medication or driving schedule accordingly.

Road Rage & Aggressive Driving

Another source of traffic accidents, especially during high-traffic times and in high-traffic areas, is road rage.

Many drivers have experienced some degree of anger or aggression while driving, according to a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In their survey, more than half of drivers reported that overwhelming feelings of anger at other drivers led to purposeful tailgating, which itself can be dangerous and elicit backlash or road rage from other drivers.

These feelings of frustration can lead to other aggressive driving practices that endanger other drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and workers on the road, such as speeding, failing to yield, and running red lights. But, just as repeatedly pressing the down button won’t make an elevator come any faster, aggressive driving won’t make the traffic flow any faster. In fact, it might result in an accident, leading to more delays.

Most of us can probably admit that we are occasionally guilty of one or more of these dangerous driving habits. But, just like changing any bad habits and behaviors, it takes both will power and a focus on being part of the solution to the problem to do your part to reduce traffic jams and car accidents.

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