The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When sneezing kills

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On Sunday, a 79-year-old woman in Australia died after rolling her Hyundai Elantra.

“She was coming to visit me and spend the week with me,” her sister said.

In Missouri in 2012, a single mother was killed when a schoolteacher lost control of her car.

“She had just improved her career and was really getting her act together as a single mom,” a friend said.

The cause of these fatal car accidents? The sneeze.

“Sneezing can be very violent, causing the sufferer to close their eyes temporarily, especially with a severe cold,” Steve Rounds, a British police official, told the Daily Mail last year. “Driving a car with such symptoms would certainly be irresponsible and could be held as an aggravating factor in any accident that led to a death or serious injury, laying the driver open to a charge of causing death by dangerous driving.”

While the National Safety Council estimated in 2010 that 1.6 million car accidents per year are caused by drivers using cellphones or texting, few such studies have investigated the sneeze’s effect on highway safety.

One undertaken by Halfords Autocentres, a British car repair company, found that “2.6 million drivers on Britain’s roads admitted to taking their eyes off the road due to a cold or flu,” according to the Daily Mail.

The result? According to Halfords,”2,500 accidents a week in winter,”

If this study seems dubious — accidents caused specifically by sneezes were not analyzed separately — consider this frighteningly detailed dissection of distracted driving from the Centers for Disease Control:

There are three main types of distraction:
  • Visual: taking your eyes off the road;

  • Manual: taking your hands off the wheel; and

  • Cognitive: taking your mind off of driving.

An ill-timed achoo seems to fall within all of these categories. Halfords estimated that those who sneeze while driving at 60 mph may travel 50 feet with their eyes closed — and the CDC said that nine people per day are killed by distracted driving in the United States. In fact, one died after a sneeze in Salisbury, Md., in 2011.

Other examples of non-fatal crashes allegedly caused by sneezes abound. A car that veered off the road in New Hartford, N.Y. A woman who rearended a Massachusetts State Police cruiser. A truck driver who smashed into 10 cars in San Leandro, Calif.

As the number of distractions tempting drivers grows — smart phones, GPS, Google Glass — it’s hard to remember that nature’s call can also prove deadly.

So pull over to sneeze, if possible.