Young Distracted Drivers Face Higher Auto Accident Risks: Study

New research highlights the risks associated with distracted driving, especially among novice drivers who have not been on the road very long.  

According to a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine on January 2, dialing a phone number or sending a text message while driving are the distractions most likely to cause an auto accident for drivers between the ages of 15 and 20.

Teens using a cell phone while driving were more likely to drift through yellow and red lights than adults using cell phones, among other increased risks

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Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development installed accelerometers, cameras, global positioning systems and other sensors in the cars of 42 new drivers and 109 experienced adult drivers in two different studies. All drivers (or their parents) provided consent to participate in the study.

“Among novice drivers, dialing or reaching for a cell phone, texting, reaching for an object other than a cell phone, looking at a roadside object such as a vehicle in a previous crash, and eating were all associated with a significantly increased risk of a crash or near-crash,” researchers report. “Among experienced drivers, only cell-phone dialing was associated with an increased risk.”

Earlier studies have found that using a cell phone overall can increase the risk of an accident by a factor of four. But the new study found that it was actively interacting with the device, such as dialing a number or sending a text message, that appears to be the real distraction. They found no increased risk of accidents when drivers simply talked on a mobile device.

The researchers postulate that this is because talking does not take one’s eyes off the road. However, they note that in most cases, before talking on a cell phone, the driver must reach for it, dial or perform some other type of interaction that can take their eyes off the road.

Researchers note that their study did not distinguish between hand-held mobile devices and hands-free mobile devices, which could have affected the outcome of the study.

Teens Engage in Riskier Behavior Over Time

The researchers also found that while they start out more attentive to the road, over time teen drivers engage in more risky secondary tasks while driving, increasing the risk of an accident. Experienced drivers’ engagement in secondary tasks stayed level.

That finding echoes some of the findings of a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in the medical journal Pediatrics in May 2013. According to that study, teens who text while driving are more likely than their peers to engage in even riskier driving behavior, like drinking or not wearing a seat belt. Researchers in that study found that nearly half of all school teens had engaged in sending text messages from cell phones while driving during just a one-month period.

In a 2010 report in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers indicated that auto accident deaths related to cell phone use and texting while driving have increased 28%; from 4,572 deaths in 2005 to 5,870 in 2008. Texting-while-driving has killed an estimated 16,000 people from 2001 through 2007.

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