Distracted Driving a Persistent Risk Amid Reno Air Events

Although the peak tourism season across most of the country reaches its end around Labor Day – with schools resuming and the weather beginning to sour, both keeping families closer to home – entertainment in the Reno, Nevada area remains robust through September. As we explore in this post, one side effect of these late-season spectacles is the potential for distracted driving accidents in Reno as drivers look skyward.

Reno: A Colorful Skyline

The daily commute can be a monotonous blur from one day to the next, but on one Friday each September Reno motorists are likely to catch a glimpse of something unexpected on the horizon. In years past it was an oversized Snoopy, a cartoon bull, or other giant-yet-familiar characters, floating in midair: hot air balloons. As times have changed, so have the characters; here is a partial list of the specialty balloons from the balloon races in 2019:

  • A replica of the Liberty Bell
  • A pirate
  • Billy the Kid
  • A jack-o’-lantern
  • Darth Vader
  • Simba from Disney’s “The Lion King”
  • Smokey the Bear
  • A giant clock
  • A stagecoach
  • An Elvis tribute [1]

The Reno Balloon Races takes place in September each year, and the event is not limited to a high-altitude race. The most popular events for onlookers are Dawn Patrol – an aptly named demonstration of balloons taking flight as night fades to morning – and Mass Ascension, when the majority of the events rise skyward for Renoites to marvel at up-close or from miles away. [2]

It is the latter event that poses the greatest risk of distracted driving crashes in Reno and the nearby community of Sparks. Some drivers are prone to distraction, ignoring the responsibilities attendant with driving what is at best a powerful machine and at worst a multi-ton battering ram moving at high speed. As smartphones have become ubiquitous, some drivers have made a habit of checking news updates, reviewing emails, and sending and replying to text messages while driving; these risky examples have compounded the “classic” forms of distracted driving caused by eating, dressing, or fiddling with the radio. Add to this buffet of distractions the colorful visage of floating cartoon characters, and you have a potentially forceful recipe for a distracted driving crash.

Fortunately, many Reno drivers avoid becoming distracted by the activities of the Reno Balloon Races because they are accustomed to this annual event. While we are unaware of any robust study of the issue, it may be that the number of Reno distracted driving accidents attributable to the floating balloons are linked to at least one of the involved drivers being from out of town or a recent arrival to the Reno-Sparks area. Still, the danger lurks even for long-time Renoites: those who have a favorite specialty balloon may be tempted to try and pick it out of the colorful skyline, possibly devoting a dangerous amount of attention away from the road ahead.

High-Speed Thrills: The Reno Air Races

In the age of supersonic jets and autonomous vehicles, traveling by hot air balloon is refreshingly quaint and old-timey. If you are wondering what constitutes a hot air balloon “race,” you should know that the Reno Balloon Races consists of three days of events during which the competitive pilots travel from one point to another and attempt to drop weighted projectiles onto a target. The event is not properly a “race” in that accuracy counts for much more than speed. [3] While the balloon races are hardly a high-speed affair, another annual event brings high-speed thrills to the region.

The Reno Air Races features aeronautical acrobatics and races by restored airplanes from eras long gone by. The event has been going on for more than 50 years and in recent years has attracted an average of 100,000 attendees annually. [4] Since the spectacle takes place north of Reno at Stead Field, there is little risk of Reno motorists suffering from distracted driving car crashes; compare this to the way the Balloon Races can crowd drivers’ fields of vision.

That being said, the Reno Air Races have not been without danger or even tragedy. The most stunning and tragic example occurred in 2011, when an elderly pilot lost control of his restored plane. The plane, a modified version of the P-51 Mustang design used in World War II and the Korean War, suddenly jutted skyward after circling around a pylon; the nose then dipped down, and the plane crashed into the audience viewing the race from the grandstands. Though terrifying, the damage sustained could have been worse; the pilot was killed on-site along with six others; four more succumbed to their injuries after being hospitalized. [5]

This year’s event saw nothing like the carnage of 2011, but it had its share of close calls. Two planes in the Formula One division collided in mid-air, but fortunately both planes suffered only minor damage and the pilots were able to safely land them. Because the impact was relatively mild, the race event underway actually continued. The cause of the collision remains undetermined. [6]

Another near-tragedy is no subject of mystery. The pilot of the DRACO – a plane with specialized landing gear made for landing “in the bush” – admits that he made a poor choice when he tried to beat an incoming weather system by forcing a takeoff against a strong crosswind. The light plane – which also had his wife and best friend on board – was spun around and suffered irreparable damage, but all three individuals walked away with their lives. [7]


[1] https://www.rgj.com/story/life/2019/09/05/everything-you-need-know-great-reno-balloon-race-2019/2222693001

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_air_ballooning#Competition

[4] https://airrace.org/about

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Reno_Air_Races_crash

[6] https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2019/09/12/2-planes-land-safely-after-mid-air-collision-2019-reno-air-races/2301115001

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