In the long and inglorious history of distracted and/or dangerous driving, men have always been—and continue to be—the most frequent culprits. However, a recent study shows that “pregnancy brain”—a phenomenon characterized by forgetfulness and mental distraction commonly reported by expectant women—can affect many aspects of behavior, including, it seems, driving ability.
If you’re a soon-to-be mom, the data says you should take extra care when you’re behind the wheel, knowing that an automobile accident can lead to serious injuries—both bodily and financially—and can even potentially land you in a world of legal problems.
Statistics point to vulnerability
Researchers in Canada studied the records of more than 500,000 women over a six-year period to compare their risk of auto accidents before, during, and after pregnancy. Turns out that a pregnant woman has a significantly higher risk of being involved in an auto accident, particularly during her second semester. And the risk is higher in the afternoons (during the evening commute), in bad weather, and in the fall and winter.
The study showed that numbers increased markedly during pregnancy. Before pregnancy, serious crashes for all of the women (when in the driver’s seat) totaled 177 per month, or 4.5 crashes per 1,000 women per year. The rate stayed mostly consistent through the first month of pregnancy.
By the fourth month, however, the same women were having 299 serious car crashes per month (an annual rate of 7.6 per 1,000)—a 42 percent increased relative risk of being in an automobile accident when pregnant than when not pregnant. The rate fell dramatically by the final month of pregnancy and remained low for the year following the births.
“A normal pregnancy is associated with fatigue, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, and distraction,” Donald Redelmeier, a researcher with the Institution for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “All those changes could contribute to driver error.”
Pregnancy creates distractions
So, why is the risk particularly high during the first month of the second trimester? It could be that women are finally feeling better at this point in their pregnancy after an exhausting and sickness-filled first trimester. And they’re likely getting out more, which puts them on the highways more regularly and increases their risk of crashing in general. Furthermore, the mamas-to-be may be rushing around getting things ready for the baby, which contributes to the distraction.
In addition to documented brain changes (which other studies have refuted), researchers have pointed to hormones and other effects of pregnancy that often affect expectant mothers more than they realize. These subconscious and unconscious distractions have the potential to impact driving skills, reflexes, and concentration.
And that third trimester? The study purports that physical changes are so obvious by then that there is a very present reminder to be more careful. And a woman’s support system is constantly warning her to drive cautiously.
In fact, the safest month for all women was the final month of pregnancy, according to the research. The women studied had only 2.74 crashes per 1,000 women per year. And in the year following birth, the accident rate was even lower (2.35 crashes per 1,000).
Can “pregnancy brain” be blamed for an accident?
From a legal standpoint, then, can this “condition” be blamed for a fender bender? Kevin Adkins of the Kenmore Law Group in Los Angeles explains that traffic accidents are typically negligence cases, and negligence is the failure to act reasonably. “The first and most important question to ask,” he says, “is ‘What would a reasonable person have done?’”
Pregnancy brain cases would likely be treated the same as any other mental condition which affects the driver. “We have seen cases where an individual knew he was having seizures without notice, and he chose to drive, and he was held liable for an accident that he caused,” says Adkins.
If it is determined that the “reasonable” thing for a pregnant woman to do is not get behind the wheel, because her pregnancy brain was problematic, then a woman who chooses to drive despite the condition can be held liable for any damages caused. “By definition, the defendant was negligent and can be sued for negligence,” explains Adkins.
However, if a woman is unaware that she is suffering from pregnancy brain, there is no liability. “She would only be liable if she knew or if she should have known (i.e. if a reasonable person in her position would know) that the pregnancy brain posed a danger to other people on the road,” says Adkins.
Driving—cautiously—is still OK
“We are not saying that pregnant women shouldn’t drive,” says Redelmeier. Nor are the researchers suggesting that expecting moms leave driving to male partners—the study confirms that even at their worst, pregnant women are still better drivers than men of the same age.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists encourages pregnant women to remember to buckle up with a lap and shoulder belt and to keep air bags turned on. Additionally, pregnant drivers should aim to keep 10 inches between the steering wheel and their breastbone.
Awareness is key. Women in mid-pregnancy should drive as cautiously as they would with big bellies or infants on board. “Just slow down and follow the rules of the road,” says Redelmeier. “That seems like such incredibly banal advice to give, I realize that, but every one of our crashes in the study could have been avoided by a small change in driver behaviors.”
If you do find yourself in a car accident and need legal help, you can get some right here.