| Odds & Ends Safe Driving
Ah-Choo woman in glasses sneezing into a tissue while behind the wheel of car.

Distracted driving claims approximately 3,200 lives each year in the United States and injures tens of thousands more, according to the CDC. Texting, chatting, and eating are all common culprits… but what about sneezing?

As allergy season reaches its peak, we’re taking a closer look at sneezing while driving to examine what causes it, how it can be surprisingly dangerous, and what you can do to stay safe, even with the sniffles.

Why Do We Sneeze

First comes the tingle, then, the inhale, and finally, the big sneeze. As a natural reflex, sneezing is one of the body’s many defense mechanisms, typically triggered by an irritant in the nasal cavity.

Nasal irritants can come in many forms, from dust to pollen to smoke. A small segment of people suffer from sneezes that are triggered by bright lights, scientifically known as “photic sneezes.” Others experience “snatiation” sneezes, which can occur after eating a large meal.

Is Sneezing While Driving Actually Dangerous?

Sneezing is usually nothing more than a minor inconvenience or the symptom of a common cold, but all that changes when you’re behind the wheel.

Did you know that a driver going 60 mph could easily travel 50 feet with their eyes closed when they sneeze? Yikes! Moreover, did you know that sneezes can travel up to 100 mph? That’s 15 mph faster than the highest speed limit in the U.S. (which is along Texas State Highway 130, as reported by USA Today).

According to the CDC, there are three primary types of distracted driving, which are all covered below. Unfortunately, an ill-timed sneeze could qualify as all three!

  • Visual: Visual distractions happen when you look at anything other than the road, including the back of your eyelids. Closing your eyes is part of the sneezing reflex. When driving, that means taking your gaze off the road for a variable—and frightening—amount of time.
  • Manual: Manual distractions cause us to take our hands off the steering wheel. They include reaching for a drink in our cup holder, adjusting the GPS, or cleaning our sunglasses, to name a few. Sneezing often provokes a full body response, accompanied by the impulse to cover your mouth, leaving you with a knee-jerk response to take your hand off the wheel.
  • Cognitive: Also known as mental distractions, these are things that cause you to lose focus on the task at hand. They can be anything from a conversation to a talk show on the radio. (Hence why some people turn down the radio to parallel park or maneuver.) That being said, there are few things more mentally jarring than a violent string of unexpected sneezes!

Even a few moments’ distraction from a sneeze can cause an accident. As reported by The Daily Mail in 2011, a Maryland man lost control of his car, hitting a tree and killing his passenger. Likewise in 2012, CBS reported that a California truck driver damaged 10 cars after a sneeze caused him to veer right into a car dealership.

Help Prevent Sneezing While Driving-Related Accidents

Practice Safe Driving

We know you can’t stop driving for the duration of allergy season just to avoid the possibility of a sneeze-related accident! Doing so wouldn’t be convenient. You can’t put your life on hold for the sniffles.

The next-best option is to try some allergy-fighting tricks to help you avoid sneezing behind the wheel. Start by minimizing your exposure to allergens, including but not limited to:

  • Pollen: During allergy season, use your car’s A/C controls to recirculate air inside the vehicle to avoid introducing new pollen to the cabin. Check to make sure all air filters are clean and functioning well.
  • Dust: An estimated 20 million Americans are allergic to dust. If dust mites are likely to send you into a sneezing fit, keep the interior of your car wiped down, vacuumed, and dusted.
  • Pets: You may want to think twice before bringing Fido for a Sunday drive. Animal fur and dander increase your odds of sneezing, and having pets in the car can also prove a huge distraction, especially if they’re traveling outside the crate.
  • Bright light: The photic sneeze reflex doesn’t affect everyone, but, if bright lights leave you shouting “achoo!” be sure to wear sunglasses when driving on sunny days.

If environment control isn’t enough, you can also try a variety of allergy treatments to reduce symptoms, from antihistamines to allergy shots. And, if a cold is the culprit, consider carrying extra tissues so you can nip sneeze secretions in the bud. For chronic issues, check with your doctor for the best way to relieve your symptoms.

Lastly, make sure to practice anti-distracted driving safety tips to fend off accidents. For example, always leave plenty of space between your vehicle and the next to give you plenty of room to maneuver. If you feel a sneeze coming on and can safely pull over, that’s still usually your best option. These tips can help you avert disaster and in doing so, may also help you qualify for a safe driver discount on your car insurance policy.

Head to our Safe Driving section for more safe driving tips and interesting info about weird driving things, like barefoot driving!

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