Even small distractions from watching the road can significantly increase the likelihood of car accidents for newly-licensed drivers, according to a study published this month in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A new study by researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Institutes of Health found that the risk of crashes increased significantly among inexperienced teen drivers when they tried to reach for a cell phone, dial a cell phone, send a text message, eat or reach for another object.

The study involved the installation of data-recording devices in the automobiles of participants. The recorders captured drivers’ behavior while driving and during a crash or a near crash. The study focused on statistics from June 2006 through September 2008.

The researchers observed that new teen driver started out driving cautiously, but within months began trying to multi-task while driving as they became more comfortable behind the wheel.

The activities identified as driver distractions prior to every confirmed crash or near crash in the study included:

  • Talking on a cellphone (either handheld or hands-free).
  • Dialing a cellphone (Note: the use of shortcut keys counts as dialing).
  • Reaching for a cellphone.
  • Reaching for an object inside the vehicle.
  • Sending text messages or being on the Internet while driving.
  • Adjusting the radio, heat or air system or other controls on the dashboard.
  • Looking at a roadside object such as a highway incident, construction zone, pedestrian or animal.
  • Eating.
  • Drinking a nonalcoholic beverage.

Researchers’ Recommendations

As a result of this study, the researchers said that novice drivers engaged in almost every one of the secondary tasks are at a considerably higher risk of having a car crash. However, even experienced drivers are more likely to get into a collision if they dial a cellphone while driving.

Traffic studies indicate that drivers ages 15 to 20 years old account for a disproportionate share of motor vehicle accidents. Drivers in this age group represent 6.4 percent of driver, but are involved in 11.4 percent of fatal crashes and 14 percent of accidents involving injuries.

The other secondary tasks cited by this study do not appear to be as much of a threat to more seasoned drivers as they are to those who have recently obtained their licenses.

The report’s authors mentioned that while graduated licensing procedures are used in all 50 states, there are many differences the states’ programs. Therefore, the researchers highly recommend regulations that limit the performance of secondary tasks for new drivers.

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