Distracted teen driving: It's worse than we thought

Thursday, March 26, 2015

We knew distracted driving was a problem, especially among teenagers, but it's worse than we thought, according to a study of "flight recorders" in 1,700 wrecks.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed videos from those teen crashes and found that distraction was a factor in 58 percent of all crashes studied, including 89 percent where the vehicles ran off the road and 76 percent of rear-end crashes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had previously blamed distracted driving for only 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.

The in-depth analysis showed that, in the six seconds leading up to a crash, teen drivers were paying more attention to the following activities instead of controlling their vehicles:

* Interacting with one or more passengers: 15 percent of crashes

* Cell phone use: 12 percent

* Looking at something in the vehicle: 10 percent

* Looking at something outside the vehicle: 9 percent

* Singing/moving to music: 8 percent

* Grooming: 6 percent

* Reaching for an object: 6 percent

"It is troubling that passengers and cell phones were the most common forms of distraction given that these factors can increase crash risks for teen drivers," said AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet. "The situation is made worse by the fact that young drivers have spent less time behind the wheel and cannot draw upon their previous experience to manage unsafe conditions."

Teens, and adults, think they can "multi-task" better than they actually can.

Researchers found that drivers manipulating their cell phone for calling, texting or other uses, had their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 of the final six seconds leading up to a crash.

They also measured reaction times in rear-end crashes and found that teen drivers using a cell phone failed to react more than half of the time before the impact, meaning they crashed without braking or steering.

The report emphasized the impact distracted driving has; about 963,000 drivers age 16-19 were involved in police-reported crashes in 2013, resulting in 383,000 injuries and 2,865 deaths.

Nebraska and other states have addressed the problem somewhat, enacting graduated driver licensing to allow new drivers to gain practical experience in a relatively safe environment by restricting their exposure to risky situations, and passing laws to prevent cell phone use for teens and even passenger restrictions.

But parents are the first line of defense for teen driving safety, and should enforce strict ground rules and parent-teen driving agreements to keep their teens safe.

AAA offers help, through a comprehensive driver education program; more information is available at TeenDriving.AAA.com.

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