Improving road safety through better reporting of accidents

  • Date

    Thu 15 Nov 18

Using a mobile phone while driving

Better reporting of car accidents could lead to improved safety campaigns and fewer deaths on our roads, new research has revealed.

A detailed analysis of the main causes of accidents has shown that mobile phone use, driving while under the influence of drink or drugs and poor vision could have contributed to far more accidents than previously thought.

Researchers from the University of Essex and Queen’s University Belfast believe that the under-reporting of these factors is to blame for the distorted accident information and suggest that if the reporting system was overhauled lives could be saved.

Dr Jonathan Rolison, from our Department of Psychology, led the study. He said: “To improve road safety, insight is needed into preventable causes of road accidents. Our research has uncovered inadequacies in the way the police record accident information. In particular the contributing factors list in accident reports needs to be continuously updated to ensure accident statistics reflect the full range of factors that contribute to accidents. Our results also suggest that using a mobile app to fill in accident reports at the scene, rather than back at the station, would also be beneficial.”

In the study researches investigated the main causes of road accidents by drawing on multiple sources: the expert views of police officers, the lay views of the driving public and official road accident records for all one and two-car accidents in the UK between 2005 and 2012.

Participants were given details of six hypothetical accidents, involving both male and female drivers of varying ages, and were asked to identify what caused each one, and whether there were any other contributing factors. Their responses were then compared to the factors recorded in official accident reports.

Both police officers and the public identified drugs or alcohol, excessive speed, inexperience and distraction as typical of young driver collisions and medical conditions and poor eyesight as typical of older driver collisions. Driver distraction was viewed as a more typical problem for female drivers, while drugs or alcohol was rated as more likely to contribute to accidents involving men.

“Our investigation revealed some interesting discrepancies with the factors reported in road accident records. While police officers frequently identified driver distraction, and in particular mobile phone use, for the hypothetical scenarios, this factor was rarely reported in the accident records.

“Either mobile phone use is an under-reported factor in road accidents or police officers (and the general public) have exaggerated beliefs about the dangers of using mobile phones while driving,” said Dr Rolison.

As a wealth of research has shown driver distraction, particularly using mobile phones, raises the risk of accidents –potentially by as much as 50% – researchers concluded it is likely to be an under-reported factor in accidents. Despite being rarely reported in accident records, drug or alcohol impairments were among the factors most frequently mentioned by police officers and the public as being contributory factors in accidents.

Roadside drug tests were only introduced in the UK in 2015 and researchers believe alcohol and drug impairment may be greatly under-reported. Under-reporting, due to inconsistent law enforcement practices, may also explain why poor eyesight does not feature in accident reports more frequently.

Researchers also tested whether people’s pre-conceived expectations of how young or old people drive influenced their recall of what actually happened when presented with different scenarios.

“In general participants reported low confidence in their recall accuracy, indicating that when memory failed they may have guessed about the most likely factors to have caused an accident. We found that when memory fails, both police officers and the public, actually incorporate their prior expectations, rather than guess randomly, but this does suggest that any time-delay before an accident report is completed could lead to memory distortions that affect the reliability of the accident report,” added Dr Rolinson.

The report, which was written with Shirley Regev, Salissou Moutari and Aidan Feeney from Queen’s University Belfast, has been published in Accident Analysis and Prevention.