Distracted driving is still a problem for teens

Using in-vehicle event recorders, scientists have studied what teenagers were doing when they crashed their vehicles. Not surprisingly, it rhymes with heart throne, according to a March report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Entitled “Using Naturalistic Driving Data to Assess the Prevalence of Environmental Factors and Driver Behaviors in Teen Driver Crashes,” the report finds that of all crashes studied involving teenage drivers, they “were seen engaging in some type of potentially distracting behavior” in 58 percent of them. The two biggest behaviors in which teen drivers were engaged among those crashes were:

  • Attending to passengers, which was seen in 14.9% of the crashes with a distraction
  • Using cellphones, which was seen in 11.9% of the crashes with a distraction

Also, cellphone use was “significantly more likely in road-departure crashes than any other type of crash (34% vs 9.2%).” So if you were driving and had a road-departure crash, there’s a one-in-three chance you were using a cellphone. If you got into any other type of crash—either a vehicle-to-vehicle or a single-vehicle crash—but didn’t leave the roadway, there’s a one-in-ten chance you were using a cellphone. If that other crash was one in which you rear-ended another vehicle, there’s a one-in-five chance you were using a cellphone.

Drivers were significantly more likely to be using cellphones … when alone in the vehicle than when passengers were present. … Looking at or operating the cellphone was associated with long eyes-off-road time and slowed reaction time.

Take your eyes off the road, crash your car

Using video from the in-vehicle recorders, analysts noted what the driver was doing in the six critical seconds before each crash. They also observed how much time, during those six seconds, the driver’s eyes were off the road.

  • With no distractions evident, drivers’ eyes were off the road for a mean of 0.2 seconds
  • With any potential distraction, their eyes were off the road for a mean of 2.2 seconds

Taking a closer look at the crashes in which the driver was engaged in potentially distracting behavior, they found that cellphone use took the driver’s eyes off the road for a significant portion of the six seconds preceding the crash, leading all other distraction types in terms of how much time it took the driver’s eyes off the road.


Source: AAA Foundation’s 2015 report on distracted driving among teenagers.
Red: Behavior seen in 70 or more crashes out of 974 studied. Blue: 30–69 crashes. Green: 29 or fewer crashes.

In the chart, we have combined two cellphone categories: “looking at/using cellphones” and “unknown but likely cellphone use.” The latter means analysts couldn’t see a cellphone on the in-vehicle recorder feed but other actions by drivers made it likely they were using cellphones.

Most mean eyes-off-road times were higher when only road-departure accidents were considered, but we have combined road-departure (single-vehicle) and rear-end (multiple vehicle) crashes in the above chart to highlight the fact that these two crash types are caused by distracted driving much more than the other types (loss of control and angle crashes).

The lesson to be learned here is that distracted driving is still a problem, and there are many types of distractions. Cellphone use is the most dangerous distraction, though, as it is most likely to cause a crash that takes a teen’s vehicle off the road or rear-ends another vehicle because of the length of time drivers aren’t watching the road.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.