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Study links age, gender to runaway car accidents; Parking-lot crashes skew to older women

Accidents in which drivers mistakenly hit the gas instead of the brake tend to involve older female drivers in parking lots, a new government study has found.

One of the study's most striking and consistent findings was that nearly two-thirds of drivers who had such accidents were women. When looking at all crashes, the reverse is true -- about 60 percent of drivers involved in crashes are men, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study noted.

Another finding: Gas pedal accidents tend to occur more frequently among drivers over age 76 and under age 20.

Similar accidents seem to be relatively common around Western New York, particularly last fall when a bizarre string of cars crashing into buildings occurred in about a one-month period.

They included a 78-year-old woman who rammed her car into an Orchard Park clothing store, a 62-year-old woman who struck a Family Dollar and an 85-year-old woman who hit a bank branch in Cheektowaga. The worst was the night of Sept. 17 when an elderly woman slammed her minivan into the front of a restaurant off Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, killing a husband and wife from Wilson.

Capt. Patrick M. McKenna, commander of the Amherst Police Accident Investigation Unit, didn't want to make speculations about gender or age but said the department researched its own records after last year's rash of crashes into buildings.

Amherst averages about 30 to 40 crashes a year where vehicles strike a building, McKenna said.

"I was actually surprised we had that many," McKenna said.

It's not always drivers mistaking the gas for the brake, McKenna said. Sometimes drivers are distracted in a parking lot -- maybe picking something up from the floor -- and before they know it they're hitting the side of the building, he said.

The age disparity in the study showed up in both an analysis of more than 2,400 gas pedal accidents in a North Carolina crash database and an analysis of nearly 900 news reports of such crashes. In the state database, accidents were almost equally likely to involve drivers under 20 as over 76, but in news reports about 40 percent of accidents involved elderly drivers -- four times as many as young drivers.

Still, drivers under 20 were the most likely age group after elderly drivers to be involved in gas pedal accidents reported by the media.

There may be several reasons for the frequency of such accidents in those age groups, but it's possible that the areas of the brain that deal with driving aren't as robust in teenage and elderly drivers, researchers said. The areas of the brain that support executive functioning -- mental processes such as planning, attention and organizing -- are the last to develop and don't reach full maturity until early adulthood. On the other end of the age spectrum, older drivers were more likely to perform poorly on tests of executive functioning.

A majority of gas pedal accidents occurred in parking lots, parking garages and driveways rather than on roads -- 57 percent in the North Carolina database and 77 percent in news reports, the study said.

A panel of driver rehabilitation specialists interviewed by researchers theorized that there may be as many instances of misapplying the gas pedal on roadways, but drivers might have more room to recover on the road than in parking lots, given the proximity of other vehicles and objects.

Gas pedal accidents gained notoriety in 2003 when an 86-year-old male driver mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal of his car instead of the brake and then panicked, plowing into an open-air market in Santa Monica, Calif. Ten people were killed and 63 injured.

The study was conducted by TransAnalytics LLC of Quakertown, Pa., and the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina under contract for NHTSA. Researchers drew on several sources of information: other studies of gas pedal accidents; several databases, including a national crash causation survey and a North Carolina state crash database; news reports; case studies of specific accidents; and interviews with driver rehabilitation specialists.