Tax Day Hazard: Fatal Crashes Increase on April 15

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You may want to stay off the roads early next week: a new study shows that the risk of fatal car crashes goes up on tax day.

Examining 30 years of road crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, researchers led by Dr. Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto compared the number of fatal car accidents occurring on tax day (April 15 or whichever weekday that taxes are due), one week before and one week later. Their results show that 19,541 people were involved in fatal crashes on the 30 tax days — that’s 404, or 6%, more than on the non-tax days the researchers studied.

The underlying causes aren’t clear, but the researchers say it is likely human stress that’s leading to extra deaths. “Stressful deadlines lead to driver distraction and short-term human error,” says Dr. Redelmeier. “Other reasons could include sleep deprivation, inadvertent distractions and less tolerance towards hassles on tax day.”

No one is immune to the tension that comes from filing taxes either. “Who looks to tax day in a joyful way? Even those who are getting refunds are stressed. Refunds are never as big as they thought and there is always the chance they could be reviewed at a later date,” says Dr. Redelmeier.

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It doesn’t help that filing taxes in the U.S. is a particularly frazzling experience. “Filing individual tax returns is a big deal. The U.S. tax code is twice as long as Canada’s and 10 times as long as France’s. So for the average family of four, it amounts to about 40 hours of work each year, and a lot of people pack it up at the end. They don’t spread out the work,” Redelmeier says.

That’s what makes tax season the ideal time frame to study the risks of driving while stressed — a problem that’s relevant 365 days a year. “We always knew road crashes destroyed the lives of thousands of people each year in the U.S., and driver error contributes to 93% of the crashes. Stress is often speculated to contribute to driver error, but stress is usually impossible to study,” says Redelmeier, but, “tax day is synchronized, repeated, and tremendously onerous.”

Redelmeier notes that road safety in the U.S. has fallen behind. Fifty years ago, there was no safer place to drive than the U.S., but today, he says, the country ranks about 20th in the world in road safety. “It’s far more dangerous than Australia, England, Canada, Sweden and France. Not because the other [countries] are so brilliant, but they have done a lot more with basic safety practices — investing in photo radar, red light camera and alcohol controls. The U.S. is lagging,” says Redelmeier.

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People seem to forget basic safety practices during times of stress, but these small oversights can mean the difference between life and death. “Almost every one of these fatal crashes could have been avoided by a small change in driver behavior,” says Redelmeier. “Basic safety practice should not be forgotten in times of stress: minimize distractions, don’t drink alcohol, wear a seat belt. Sometimes people forget even the most basic practices, which can lead to poor driving consequences, all of which could have been avoided.”

The study, a research letter, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.