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.
It can be dangerous to become a part of a sudden traffic jam, and what causes traffic jams and car crashes is based largely on the number of distractions in cars today that can affect the way you react to certain events.
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. So, what causes traffic jams? What’s behind those mysterious and sudden stops?
How Does Traffic Start
Accidents do happen, and with more people on the roads today than in recent years, both driving and walking, 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.
What Causes Congestion? More People, Fewer Roadways
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. The increase in drivers and lack of comparable increase in highways are what causes congestion.
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.
What Causes Traffic Jams? Surprise Disruptions vs. Daily Congestion
What Causes Temporary 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.
What Causes Congestion Every Day
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, which is likely on the way to work, after work, or weekends).
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 through GPS, perhaps. Even if a different route takes five, 10 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 that are often what cause car crashes.
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.
What Causes Car Crashes? Doing Your Part to Reduce Traffic Jams
Although you have no control over construction zones or the weather, understanding what causes car crashes, which contribute to 25 percent of surprise traffic jams, can help you change your driving behavior and reduce accident claims.
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.
So, what really causes car crashes? 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. If you have a young driver in your family, be sure to monitor their activities when driving and help educate them on the real dangers of what causes car crashes.
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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) has 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 or fewer the night before, if your drive lasts for three hours or more, or if 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, either. 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. There are many reasons as to what causes traffic jams but being part of the solution will help you get to your destination safer and may even influence other drivers around you, who knows!
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