Statistics have long shown that young drivers have car accidents at higher rates than the older ones. Lack of experience, overconfidence, underestimation of risk, social pressure and risky behaviors are generally seen as the primary explanations for these results. However, a recent study shows that distractions, especially cell phones, are playing an increasingly bigger role in accidents involving the youngest drivers.
Researchers for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety examined accident data compiled over an eight-year period, from 2007 to 2015. The data came from drivers, aged 16 to 19, who participated in a program that captured video, audio and accelerometer data in 12-second chunks when it detected an accident or “high g-force event,” such as hard braking. The files captured the eight seconds before the event and four seconds after. The database included 8,200 files, but the researchers excluded minor incidents such as curb strikes. That left more than 2,200 moderate-to-severe incidents to include in the study.
The data revealed a significant increase in the rate of rear-end crashes. These accounted for just over 20 percent of crashes in 2007 but nearly 40 percent in 2015. A higher percentage of accidents involved teens not paying attention to what was in front of them.
Almost 60 percent of crashes involved some type of potentially distracting behavior in the six seconds prior to impact. The rates did not vary greatly from one year to the next. The most common distractions were passengers, cell phone use, and other in-vehicle distractions.
The researchers found that the ways cell phone use distracted drivers changed over time. The proportion of crashes resulting from teens talking on or listening to a phone declined slightly each year. However, the rate of crashes following drivers operating or looking at their phones climbed four percent per year. One in five rear-end crashes during the eight years resulted from operating or looking at a phone. However, the percentage of such crashes rose from 15 percent in 2008 to 28 percent in 2014.
As might be expected from these figures, drivers taking their eyes off the road was a significant factor. Where the data permitted this to be determined, average eyes-off-the-road time for rear-end crashes jumped from 2.0 seconds in 2008 to 3.1 in 2014. The duration of the longest glance rose from 1.5 to 2.1 seconds. Average reaction times also lengthened, from 2.0 seconds to 2.7 seconds.
There was some good news. Rates of accidents involving driving off the road or loss of vehicle control were down. The authors speculated that this may be because teens are checking their phones at times they perceive to be safer, such as when they are stopped in traffic, and because more cars have automated safety systems.
The data clearly shows that teens, who are seldom without their phones, are at risk behind the wheel with them. Parents, educators, law enforcement and insurers must all emphasize to young drivers the dangers of cell phone use while driving. Distractions of all kinds are a threat, but cell phones stand out.