Teen drivers distracted by cellphones, talking in most crashes

The top distraction for teen drivers, found in 15% of the crashes, involved interacting with passenger

Whether teen drivers are talking or texting on cellphones or simply chatting with passengers, distractions play a larger role than previously thought in automobile accidents and were responsible for about six of every 10 moderate to severe crashes, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The study, by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, analyzed about 1,700 videos taken from inside crash vehicles. The videos are used as part of a private program designed to coach drivers to improve performance.

“Access to crash videos has allowed us to better understand the moments leading up to a vehicle impact in a way that was previously impossible,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation, a driving research and education group established in 1947 by AAA, the service organization for motorists. “The in-depth analysis provides indisputable evidence that teen drivers are distracted in a much greater percentage of crashes than we previously realized.”

According to the group’s analysis, all forms of distraction were a factor in 58% of the studied crashes, including in 89% of the crashes where the vehicle left the road and in 76% of the accidents involving rear-end collisions.

The top distraction, found in about 15% of the crashes, involved the driver interacting with at least one passenger in the vehicle. Next, at 12%, was the driver using a cellphone to talk, text or review the screen for messages and such.

Other forms of distraction included: the driver looking at something in the vehicle, 10%; looking at something outside the vehicle other than the road, 9%; singing or dancing to music, 8%.

All forms of grooming such as checking hair accounted for 6% of the crashes, according to the report. That was the same percentage as a driver reaching for an object in the vehicle.

“It is troubling that passengers and cellphones were the most common forms of distraction given that these factors can increase crash risks for teen drivers,” AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Teen drivers have the highest crash rate of any age group, the foundation noted, citing government statistics. About 963,000 drivers ages 16 to 19 were involved in police-reported crashes in the United States in 2013, the most recent year for available data. These crashes resulted in 383,000 injuries and 2,865 deaths.

The AAA findings are larger than the previous numbers used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which estimated that distraction was a factor in only 14% of all teen driver crashes, substantially less than the 58% found in the current study. The federal agency said it has reviewed the report.  

“AAA's study is an important contribution to the fight against this deadly problem,” Gordon Trowbridge, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman, said in a statement. “Far too many Americans, and especially young people, die or are injured in distraction-related crashes.” The agency, he said, offers  a comprehensive program to tackle distracted driving, including education for teenagers and parents and research on the extent of the problem.

The foundation said it examined more than 6,800 videos of which about 1,700 involved crashes or events where the driver had to forcefully apply brakes. The videos were each about 12 seconds long and were provided by Lytx Inc., whose DriveCam program collects video, audio and accelerometer data when a driver brakes hard or has a collision.

The videos are used in the program coaching drivers to improve behavior and reduce collisions, the AAA foundation said. The videos come from states where Lytx operates its program including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada and Wisconsin, said an AAA spokesman.

"Making the road a safer place for everyone is our core mission, and Lytx is honored to have played such a key role in research of this magnitude and importance," said Brandon Nixon, chief executive officer of Lytx, a privately-held San Diego-based company.

"This project triggered an unparalleled, in-depth analysis of crash videos recorded using our DriveCam technology, specifically examining the behaviors of teen drivers, and the results are startling," Nixon said in an emailed statement. "It is our hope that these findings serve to remind drivers of all ages that distracted driving is dangerous and sometimes deadly. Practicing safer skills behind the wheel can save lives.”

In the videos released by the AAA foundation, one teen is shown trying to negotiate a wet road with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a cellphone to his ear. Another video shows the driver looking at an electronic device, seemingly texting. The driver’s eyes leave the road and the car veers off and appears to be heading toward a mailbox.

According to the study, drivers manipulating their cellphones had their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 of the final six seconds leading up to crashes. The researchers also measured reaction times in rear-end crashes and found that teen drivers using cellphones failed to react more than half of the time before the impact.

Based on the findings, the AAA called for parents to get involved in helping to train teen drivers and for states to toughen their rules in graduated licensing programs designed to give new drivers experience in stages from learner to full privilege.

“AAA recommends that state laws prohibit cell phone use by teen drivers and restrict passengers to one non-family member for the first six months of driving,” the group urged.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


5:03 p.m., March 27: This story was updated with information from the National Highway Transportation Administration.

10:52 a.m.: This story was updated with information and comment from Lytx.

This story was first published on March 25 10:22 a.m.