The dangers of being distracted while driving have been quantified by researchers who found that newly licensed teenagers were most likely to be involved in an accident or near-miss incident because of, for example, texting at the wheel.

Using data from black-box telematics devices and video cameras installed in cars, one of the studies analyzed 42 newly licensed teenage drivers during their first 18 months of independent driving from 16 years of age.

A second study provided a similar analysis of driving performance, this time by experienced license-holders – 43 women and 66 men with an average of 20 years of driving behind them.

Engaging with distractions was most risky for the new drivers. Among novices, all the following “tasks secondary to driving” were significantly more likely to result in a crash or near-crash:

  • Dialing a cell phone
  • 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
  • Eating.

Overall, across drivers from all age groups, the researchers say eyes are being taken off the road about 10% of the time, with greater dangers for the inexperienced.

“Anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road can be dangerous,” says study co-author Bruce Simons-Morton, EdD, from the US National Institutes of Health.

Simons-Morton, also of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, continues:

But our study shows these distracting practices are especially risky for novice drivers, who haven’t developed sound safety judgment behind the wheel.”

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Novice teen drivers were more likely to be involved in a crash or near-miss when they were distracted by their phone or eating, the study shows.

The “data acquisition systems” installed in the vehicles included cameras, sensors and a computer with removable hard drive. The full methods and results of the research have been published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The in-car sensors included:

  • Accelerometer
  • GPS tracker
  • Yaw sensor
  • Front radar
  • Lane position monitoring.

These all gave data on, among other variables, acceleration, sudden braking or swerving, and drifting from a lane. The data, along with video footage, were recorded whenever the cars were travelling above 5 miles an hour.

Analyzing crash data and frequency of driver distractions, the results showed the amount by which novice teen drivers were more likely to be involved in a crash or near-miss:

  • Eight times the risk when dialing
  • Seven to eight times when reaching for a phone or other object
  • Almost four times when texting, and
  • Three times more likely to be in an incident when eating.

The study monitoring took place for between 12 and 18 months, and whenever there was a crash or near-miss incident, data was available to the researchers to see whether the drivers had been engaged in a distracting activity.

The researchers scientifically designed their study and the analysis of results. They compared crash data with randomly sampled control data – 6-second segments that represented normal daily driving conditions. Crashes that involved no fault from the monitored driver were excluded.

The analysis compared how often distracting activities were taking place when a crash or near-miss occurred against the frequency of these during the segments of uneventful driving.

The researchers were able to see whenever drivers had “talked, dialed or reached for a cell phone, reached for another object in the car, adjusted the car’s temperature or radio controls, ate, drank, looked at a crash or something else outside the car, or adjusted a mirror, seatbelt or window in the car.”

The definition of a crash was “any physical contact between the vehicle and another object for which the driver was at fault or partially at fault.”

A near-miss was “any circumstance requiring a last-moment physical maneuver that challenged the physical limitations of the vehicle to avoid a crash, for which the driver was at fault or partially at fault.”

Simons-Morton says:

As new forms of technology increasingly are available in cars, it’s important that drivers don’t feel compelled to answer every incoming call or text.

For young drivers’ safety, parents can model this habit when they are at the wheel, and also let their children know that they should wait until the vehicle is stopped before taking a call – even when it’s from mom or dad.”