Would it shock you to learn that you run a much higher risk of a serious or fatal automobile accident if you drive while grieving? And, that the risk bears a direct correlation to drunk driving?

The relationship between drunk driving and driving while grieving is most easily understood when you recall the driving lessons you took in high school. You were taught that the capacity most affected when driving while intoxicated is “reaction time.”

Smply put, the amount of time it takes your brain to react to the incoming visual and auditory stimuli and take evasive action is slowed down. In that sense, time is measured in fractions of seconds and those fractions are the difference between life and death, or serious injury, and definitely property damage.

We often ask people if they’ve ever been in a minor traffic accident, and if they realize that when it happened, they may have been off in thoughts and memories that relate to a loss of some kind. Most people will admit they’ve had that experience.

We then suggest that in the time that it took from when they saw the potential accident unfolding, to when they could hit the breaks or steer out of harm’s way, it was too late, and the crash happened.

That’s precisely what happens to people while driving, usually alone, and when they’re preoccupied with thoughts and feelings about someone important to them who has died; or about struggles they have in a current romantic relationship or had in one that recently ended.

You don’t have to take our word for it. Two major studies—one from Finland, the other from Denmark—give statistical evidence of the much higher probability of grief-related serious or fatal auto accidents. The Finnish Study [Mortality after Bereavement; J. Kaprio, M. Koskenvuo, and H. Rita] involving 95,647 widows and widowers, published in the American Journal of Public Health in March, 1987, showed that deaths from auto accidents in the few years following the deaths of their spouses, went up by 93% compared to the average.

The Danish Study [Mortality in parents after death of a child in Denmark: a nationwide follow-up study, The Lancet, Volume 361, Issue 9355, Pages 363 - 367, 1 February 2003; Jiong Li MD, Dorthe Hansen Precht MD, Preben Bo Mortensen MD, Jørn Olsen MD] confirms findings related to fatal auto accidents under the heading of the grieving parents who died of unnatural causes.

The studies of those two populations, grieving widows and widowers, and grieving parents, show clearly that the reduced concentration that accrues to all grievers, is a clear and present danger to our lives and those of others, while we’re driving.

With this awareness, we hope that at the very least, if or when you are beset with grief and you must drive your car, please make sure to remind yourself to focus on the task at hand, which is driving, not thinking and feeling. If feelings overwhelm you, pull over to the side of the road. Driving with tears in your eyes can also affect your reaction time.

If someone you care about is in the throes of the aftermath of a major loss, remind them to be careful when driving, and if circumstances allow, offer to drive them to essential appointments.

About the Author

Russell Friedman

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.

You are reading

Broken Hearts

Two Year Tragiversary of the Boston Marathon Bombings

The only sliver of value is the reminder to cherish those we love and tell them.

The Primary Emotional Purposes of a Funeral or Memorial

To remember that person the way we knew them in life; and to say "goodbye."

The Absence of Emotional Completion “Sabotages” Marriage

Surprise Alert—It’s Not A Gender Thing!