Distractions especially dangerous for new drivers

Any driver who takes his or her eyes off the road is in danger of a crash, but the risk is much greater for novice drivers than for those who have been driving for years, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The study found that experienced drivers engage in risky behaviors less often than newly licensed teen drivers—and also are better able to handle them if they do get distracted.

“Novice drivers are more likely to engage in high-risk secondary tasks more frequently over time as they become more comfortable with driving,” said Sheila G. Klauer, PhD, lead author of the study. “The increasingly high rates of secondary task engagement among newly licensed drivers in our study are worrisome, as this appears to be an important contributing factor to crashes or near-crashes.”

Distractions can include talking or texting on cellphones, reaching for phones or other items in the car, tuning the radio, or just looking at something off the road.

“Anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road can be dangerous,” said Bruce Simons-Morton, MPH, one of the study’s co-authors. “But our study shows these distracting practices are especially risky for novice drivers, who haven’t developed sound safety judgment behind the wheel.”

About the study

The authors used data from two studies: One involved 100 experienced drivers between the ages of 18 and 72 and lasted for a year. The other followed 42 newly licensed drivers ages 16 to 18 for a total of 18 months.

In both studies, driving data was recorded by multiple cameras and sensors installed in the cars. The devices noted crashes, near-crashes and any distracted driving behaviors.

Among experienced drivers, the only task that significantly raised the risk for a crash or near-crash was dialing a cellphone.

For novice drivers, however, any task substantially increased their risk for a crash or near-crash.

For example, compared to nondistracted drivers their age, the newly licensed teen drivers were:

  • 8 times more likely to crash or nearly crash when dialing a cellphone.
  • Nearly 4 times more likely to crash or nearly crash when texting or using the Internet.
  • 7 to 8 times more likely to crash or nearly crash when reaching for a phone or other items in the car.
  • 3 times more likely to crash or nearly crash when eating.

One activity that did not significantly increase crash or near-crash rates among either group of drivers: merely talking on a cellphone.

“However, our findings should not be interpreted to suggest that there is no risk associated with this activity, since previous simulations and test-track research has shown that talking on a cellphone reduces attention to visible road hazards and degrades driving performance,” the authors wrote.

Also, talking on a cellphone almost always requires reaching for and dialing the phone, both of which raise crash risk significantly.

The take-home message
No one should use a cellphone while driving, no matter how old they are or how long they’ve had a license. And parents should emphasize the dangers of distracted driving to their newly licensed teens.You can find more information—including statistics about distracted driving and vehicle crashes—here.

Film director Werner Herzog produced a short documentary on the hazards of texting and driving as a public service message sponsored by the major cellphone carriers. It can viewed here. It includes interviews with both the victims and drivers involved in accidents, so parents may want to screen it before showing it to their children.

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